Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Obama Art Phenomenon: Selling Hope?

The Obama Art Phenomenon: Selling Hope?

Now that the election is over people are starting to discuss the Obama art phenomenon in greater detail. There is a need to examine what occurred, how it occurred, and the implications said info will have in the future. Due to this I'm pleased to know that some fellow art bloggers will be discussing issues concerning the so-called 'Obama art phenomenon.

Sharon Butler, who maintains the Two Coats of Paint art blog, has plans for a “Blogger Conference/Think Tank/Pre-Inauguration Party” at Pocket Utopia this Sunday. The event will be used as a platform to discuss the influence of art during the Bush administration and how it has changed since the rise of Obama-- as well as how the Obama administration will shape the art world based on policy decisions. Paddy Johnson from Art Fag City mentioned that someone needs to address the “Obama portrait phenomenon” that is “currently gripping the art world” and applauded Butler for taking on the task.

My bet is that a core group of art bloggers will stoke the flames of this needed dialogue before the traditional press does. So far all we have had is a constant bombardment of regurgitated information concerning Shepard Fairey, his ’Hope’ portrait of Obama, and the idea that the Obama campaign has inspired a 'grass roots' political art movement. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend the art blogger think tank-- but I still want to make my concerns known.

So here it goes…

One could say that Barack Obama has many faces-- some in paint, some in clay, some in collage, and many in the sketchbooks of art students throughout the United States. However, the momentum of this politically driven art phenomenon-- which volunteers and others associated with the Obama campaign have stated as being 100% user-generated with no financial ties to the campaign itself -- was ushered in by a constant bombardment from the press concerning specific individuals who were directly and indirectly linked to the inner circle of the Obama campaign and promotional efforts during the election process.
HOPE by Shepard Fairey

Maybe I’m being cynical-- but when art and politics mesh on a grand scale concern is warranted. This concern is solidified when one is aware that key figures in this ‘movement’ are employees and clients of a public relations firm that once served as Media Consultants for the Obama campaign. I'm speaking of the PR firm Evolutionary Media Group. Yet the press has predominately portrayed the Obama art phenomenon as a “grass roots” effort born from within the arts community that occurred without direct support from a firm, corporation, or any specific individual with time and resources invested in the Obama campaign.

The connection between art and Barack Obama played an instrumental role during the election. It was indeed an art phenomenon. My concern is that the momentum of this “art phenomenon” may have been fostered by artificial means-- a playing of the system by individuals with the right (in this case left) press connections, controversial funding, and the know-how of implementing a strategic and stealthy art campaign.
A mural by Kofie'One which was purchased by Yosi Sergant for the Obama campaign headquarters. Sergant is an employee of the PR firm Evolutionary Media Group-- which worked for a six month period as Media Consultants for the Obama campaign.

With a source of funding-- not counting donations-- and inside media support-- guaranteed press acknowledgment-- political opportunists with a specific agenda could have easily accomplished this. In other words, the attention directed toward the ‘Obama art phenomenon’ and specific artists and individuals involved in the ‘movement’ could have been manipulated in such a way as to create false media buzz concerning the ‘grass roots’ visual impact. In other words, individuals and businesses with a vested interest in the Obama campaign could have spurred the grass roots effort artificially by utilizing stealth PR tactics and funding from controversial sources. Thus making the grass roots effort more than what it would have been otherwise. Furthermore, it may not have even existed otherwise.

To put it bluntly, there is reason to suspect that the art phenomenon surrounding Barack Obama was not as “grass roots” as some people might think. It may have been carefully plotted by individuals-- professionalis-- directly associated with the Obama campaign. If that is the case history, and the public, has been fooled. After all, the media is already portraying Obama’s election as a triumph for the power of user-generated art from within the arts community as a purely 'grass roots' movement fueled by artists who did not have direct contact with the Obama campaign.
Discrepancies involving the origin of the ‘Obama art phenomenon’ and the ‘art movement’ that occurred during the election will eventually come to light. The question is, will it matter to the public, specifically those in the arts community, if it turns out that the momentum was established by artificial means-- corporate means? Will it matter if what occurred was more corporate than grass roots?

X Obama by Ron English

If this phenomenon was created and guided by a well-funded PR machine-- with the ever-watchful eye of the Obama campaign observing and directing it-- does it matter? Would it take away from the legitimacy of those outside of the PR machine who were lured into the ‘movement‘ believing it to be a purely grass roots effort-- artists who had intentions other than fostering media hype for themselves... artists who were not interested in establishing the groundwork for a for-profit merchandising empire based on selling hope?

If a scenario like this were to unravel would we see the merit of some of the most influential street artists in the United States questioned? Would the message of their art be tarnished by being associated with the very entities and corruption they speak against? Or would they continue to be hyped as anti-corporation visual revolutionaries? After all, one can be a rebel and still earn a living, right? However, one can’t sustain an authentic dialogue if he or she is subservient to what he or she protests against. What are your thoughts?

Links of Interest:


Anonymous said...

I have to commend you for being vocal with ideas that are not popular. If the media did that we would not wake up to a circus in the morning paper. I don’t think opinions of Obey or Ron English will change if dirty dealings are exposed. If you ask people in the underground scene they will tell you that Obey and Ronny cashed in years ago. Anyone with a few brain cells can see that money is the motivation for the good that they do. They are no different than televangelists. The rich art collectors and braindead celebrities don’t know any better and consumers mimic the taste of their masters. Street art today is a luxury item for the elite and wallpaper for stupid youths. Kids today think that rebelling involves a $200 pair of counterculture branded pants.

Anonymous said...

Who cares if it was orchestrated! That would make it even more brilliant. Even if the campaign had knowledge and funded ‘bombing’ it would pale in comparison to the activity of the Bush administration and their brand of bombing!

Anonymous said...

Hero worship is always dangerous, but considering how fickle the left is, they wil turn on Obama at some point. Considering the difficulty of the times, it may have to be awhile, as even liberals will have to put their Meism down for a minute. But will take it up at the first opportunity. Using Obamas face as an icon of their own godlike abilities, it will be disowned as soon as he makes a decision that goes against their divine knowledge.

Forget politics now, thats over, and get down to work. The basics, the fundamentals of what is truth and what is selfish desire. In economics, foreign policy, business, and art. Get down to the skeleton, and rebuild, through out the trash of the last decades, test yourself, through constructive criticism built on knowledge of the past, of who WE are as a people. And rediscovering nature, and an appreciation that their is more than just us out there, whatever you want to call it. The Force, spirituality, god, what have you. But that we are not at the pinnacle of cration, we are faulty, limited, and only by striving endlessly can we approach truth, getting a fleeting glimpse, and art is how we reflect that truth. Of mankind, nature and god. Each artsits own experiences and connections to the world as his guide, but built on deep adn selfless knowledge.

Lets get to work. NO more talk, except self critically. And NEVER lose constructive self criticism, its amazing how the art acadamies ahve managed to elimnate taht essential quality, or they would have been called into question long ago. Measure yourself constantly against that which is known to be true in art, from generations past, not the pseudo hip and in of the day. Does your work compare to that, in feel. If it doesnt, get back to work, and that is your goal. Can you place your work up next to a Cezanne, a Matisse, a Gauguin, and not be dimished. Or outright destroyed. Keep working, or get a new field of endeavor.

And I see there is no mentuion of the deaths of either Robert Graham or Andrew Wyeth. Two limited, but true, artists. Just not hip enough for the MFA crowd, they would rather gatehr in galleries staring at pickled feces. A reflection of their world. Not the Earths, humanities, or the endless creation.

art collegia delenda est

Milena said...

Thanks for this piece. While I have zero problem with a well-orchestrated media campaign, there is something annoying at best and deceptive at worst when it is passed off as a grass roots operation. It is actually a disservice to the grass-roots artist who thinks he or she has a shot at the big time, when in reality, it is those already in the big time who have a shot at the big time. Does that make sense?

This just perpetuates the detrimental myth that being a successful artist has everything to do with "aura" and the intangible - and nothing to do with keen business and commericial sense. Mass appeal matters. The Obama art campaign proved it. Obama proved it.

So, while I agree this is shady, and I don't like it one bit, it's not illegal or anything. It's just one more tally mark in my mind that every politician is the same.

Anonymous said...

Milena, if the Obama campaign was directly involved with hiring street artists to create works in illegal spaces it would be considered a violation. If it was funded with campaign contributions it would be criminal and those involved could be charged with a number of crimes. It would be a violation of public trust and of United States law for a campaign to hire people for guerilla advertising on public and private property.

I read one of the linked articles and it mentioned that this Yosi guy was a volunteer for the Obama campaign while being hired by the campaign as a media consultant with Revolutionary Media Group. So technically he was a worker for the Obama campaign.

While working under the director of the Obama campaign's communications department he tried to hire a company that creates laser projection graffiti equipment to put OBAMA on the iconic sign in Hollywood but was refused. He also hired a street artist group in Texas to help attract young Latino voters before the primaries. I guess he thinks that all Latinos are attracted to street art. Ron English is involved with the same group.

Other artists have come forward saying they were offered money by the campaign to create works of art for the campaign. Yosi and the director deny that. So it does not look like this was a grass roots effort started by artists. It was most likely a stealthy pr campaign. History will say it was a massive grass roots effort.

The problem is that Yosi says that no one in the Obama campaign new about the stuff he was doing with street artists but Shepard Fairey was contacted by the campaign's director of communications shortly after Yosi met the artist. So there must have been communication between the two and others in the campaign about funding street artists to place works in illegal space to promote Obama. It looks like it was an organized effort with support from the campaign itself with the Evolutionary pr firm promoting it on the inside.

Most people will not care. But if the Republicans orchestrated something like this you can be sure it would have been sliced and diced in the media. If the campaign was not involved they could at least apologize for the actions of Yosi and the pr firm while under their watch. Illegal graffiti costs tax payers billions each year. A presidential campaign should not support it.

Anonymous said...

If there is truth to it they should of just been open about it instead of making it look like a pure effort by artists across the United States. It would have reflected bad on Obama if the campaign was endorsing and funding illegal street art though. It looks like Yosi Sergant, Evolutionary Media Group, Shepard Fairey, and Goodstein the Director of Communications for the campaign were in cahoots. They keep calling it a grass roots effort but that term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it is natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think it matters. People will see what happened in the way they want to. I think it was a grass roots effort that was jumpstarted with a little money. I’m biased through because I’m a huge fan of Obey. You’ve been very critical of his crew. Stop hating.

Anonymous said...

Lighten up Donald. He has said why he does not mention obituaries. I’d think you would be more upset that the death of Wyeth was only mentioned on the front page of Yahoo for about two hours. It ended up being replaced with an article about Shepard Fairey titled “Street artist’s rises with Obama portrait in Smithsonian”. I wonder if the Smithsonian will describe that image correctly.

Steph G said...

wait. is the issue

A. that the Obama art phenomenon began as a grass roots campaign and succeeded in garnering corporate support thereby rendering it less or no longer simply grass roots?


B. that the Obama art phenomenon was presented as a grass roots initiated campaign, but was not actually begun in the manner suggested... that instead it was actually birthed under corporate influence?

i would only take issue with A. if eventual corporate funds worked to twist the purpose of the original intent or gain undue influence for any corporation. however, the intent was to get Obama elected, and i don't see how such a straight forward mission could truly be twisted. when a movement is begun by a small group of ordinary citizens it follows that the hope is that the message/purpose will gain support from as many as possible regardless of who they are. corporate money is not inherently dirty. the practices of the corporation, the money's use and the extent of it's influence beyond the purpose for which it is accepted determines any morality factor.

i would take issue with B. insofar as it would be yet another symptom of the frustrating nature of our society and in a broader sense, humanity as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps. But not mentioning obits ignores our history, and you do that to the detriment of your work. If you dont know how and why we got here, why you do what you do, you can never be an artist. And why so much sucks these days. The overwhelming mass of art has always sucked, now it is near total as the ceiling has been lowered so much anyone can be an artist in three easy lessons. money, degree, and hobnobbing.

Losing Rauschenberg too closes the journal on Contemp Art, it is now a social footnote, not an art movement. Raushcenberg gave the art academies the symbols and language they could simply to market and sell the idea of an art "education". American symbols, rather than human, media content, over natural observation. Isolated, detached, simplified theory, over scientific, theology and philosophy. Now we got the lowest common denominator, instead of arts purpose, the highest.

And it created its own inbred language, that of the academy rather than a common shared humanity. Rauschenberg was a great artist, possibly the last, but his heritage was misused, abused, and stripped of all meaning. Marketing. Ignore the past at your peril, for art lost it soul, its purpose, its reason for being, and so ignored by teh vast majority of people. American academic art has no relevance to someone in Peru, China, or Nigeria. And so meaningless. Post Impressionism had torn it down, its time we did so again. The conservatism of the academies, it is completely self serving, must be destroyed, for art to be free once more.

art collegie delenda est

Anonymous said...

Look up the definition of grass roots. Grass roots does not involve corporate funding. Looks to be a mix of both B and A StephG.

The campaign had the best of both worlds. A potentially illegal stealth campaign with just enough evidence to renounce any involvement. Obama's people like to say things are unofficial when in reality they are.

Hiring artists to create art for the campaign and calling it purely user-generated is not ethical. Using campaign sources to gain momentum for a faked grass roots movement is unethical. Doing this to attract real use-generated content in order to maintain the lie of being a grass roots movement is unethical.

Sergant, the EMG firm, and the Director of Communications for the Obama campaign can say that they were working on their own time. Even if that is so they were using campaign resources. EMG was employed by the campaign so technically they were a resource. Which is why they broke off of the campaign when Shepard entered the scene. Yet they still worked closely with the campaign. Artists where contacted from the Obama HQ.

My guess is that Sergant and the public relations firm came up with the idea while working with the Obama campaign. Which would explain why Sergant introduced Fairey to Obama' Director of Communications. Look at how much funding and press the campaign received from its connection with art. This was great pr strategy but it was not a grass roots art phenomenon. I have a feeling when EMG makes their client list known we will see some familiar names.

Some of the best street artists were contacted by Sergant and the Director of Communications for the Obama campaign. Those artists were offered money, publicity, or both. Sergant and the Director refute that. So do you believe them or the artists? They deny it because they know it would reflect bad on Obama and that it could potentially be a violation of the law.

That is not grass roots and shows that there was communication between Sergant and the Director about art placed in illegal spaces. It was not ethical. If this is a grass roots movement than High School the Musical is a grass roots movement!

Balhatain said...

Time for me to answer some questions:

Online obituaries make me nervous. I don’t post them because you never know how accurate they are online. I sent my condolences to Bo Bartlett. Bo studied under Wyeth for 16 years. Wyeth declined an interview with me shortly after my interview with Bo. I’m not sure how long he was ill.

It is easy to change the definition of grass roots when it involves something that you support. That is what the media and some of the people involved with it have done. In my opinion they are misrepresenting what took place. Grass roots involves a bootstrap mentality it happens without the benefit of excessive funding-- it does not involve access to campaign funds and equipment and expertise from contracted media consultants for the campaign the ’art movement’ supports.

This is dangerous for a number of reasons. For example, it reveals how the media and politically affiliated groups can change history by not being truthful. This 'grass roots' art phenomenon will go down in history as just that-- grass roots. Say something enough and people will start to believe it.

Was the movement positive for the arts community-- maybe. However, it was not a purely grass roots user-generated art movement. It appears to have been brilliantly calculated from the start. In that sense it reminds me more of corporate branding than a visual revolution. What do I know--- I read between the lines.

I want to make it clear that I've been fair about this. I've been researching this for months. I contacted the Obama campaign and received an automated response followed by requests for donations. I tried to start a dialogue with the ManifestHope DC Gallery concerning some contradictions I've observed. I received a reply from Yosi Sergant that simply stated "Yawn". Yes Yosi, the media is sleeping. :)

Steph G said...

ok i think everyone here knows what grass roots refers to, Anonomous, so "look it up" is just a pointless snide remark. my response to that :P

regarding my point A. what i'm saying is, movements that begin at a grass roots level, that are birthed and driven by everyday citizens do not generally stay at that level once they become successful. they gain attention and support and funding from people who believe in the cause. when the movement gets big enough, some of the supporters are bound to be "not of the common folk". when celebrities and execs jump on the band wagon and toss their dime into the pool that does not change the fact that it was joe shmo and his pal jane doe who rolled the snowball to the top of the hill. the movement at that point is no longer solely grass roots but it is closer to accomplishing it's goal. it is where it hoped to be.

also, following logic, if B. (the campaign was never grass roots) is true, then A. (the campaign was initially grass roots, but outgrew it's origin) is Not true. they can't both be true.

to Brian, you may be right about some of this. there do seem to be some discrepancies. i'll be interested to watch the truth made clear.

Anonymous said...

If you look at links you will see that campaign workers were actively pursuing these artists. Yosi Sergant was a campaign volunteer but his firm Evolutionary Media Group also worked for the Obama campaign and had direct contact with top ranking campaigners and Obama’s team. He served as the Obama media adviser to the Obama team in California. Obama was smart for hiring Evolutionary Media Group. They have their client list conveniently missing at this time on their website but you can find out who they have worked for if you do a Google search. They have been the pr firm and team for Swerve Festival, the LA Fasion Awards, Marina del Rey Marriott, Signatures Network, Little Black Dress, Silverlake Conservatory of Music, Heeb Magazine, should I go on? Jennifer Gross is the founder of Evolutionary Media Group and has connections with USA Today, LA Times, Associated Press and other bigtime news. She has access to celebrities, musicians, you name it. For crying out loud the firm has did the pr for release parties frequented by Hollywood celebrities! The dude left his official campaign post along with Evolutionary Media Group so that his work with Shepard Fairey would not be considered official Obama campaign business. If he had kept the post someone would have asked why Obama is directly linked to illegal street ‘bombing’ and why the artists pasted posters illegally in minority communities. Evolutionary Media Group helped to print the posters for Fairey that are now iconic. They helped to make sure that the posters were seen and wrote about. It was a very well thought out plan. You can’t have an officially sanctioned artist for the Obama campaign running from cops and risking lives by speeding off in cars to avoid capture without it looking bad. The brilliance of it is that the pr firm was working with the Obama campaign unofficially. That’s why you did not see conservative media exposing the story. Obama would have just shown that the firm was not on the payroll. He would have said it was a “distraction”. The left blogs would have called it desperation. Nothing can be done now because the idea that it was a massive art phenomenon grass roots iniative by thousands of artists has been thumped into the psyche of the nation. You wanna know more about Yosi and Shep? They already knew each other. Yosi did not magically bump into Fairey. All he did was asked him about his views on Obama when both gents were attending an Adidas party. Once they worked out a deal he delivered the image to his network of media contacts and coordinated the strategic placement of the posters in front of cameras at Obama rallies, as well as in multiple cities to coincide with local primaries. He did that on Evolutionary Media Group dollar and with the OK from team Obama. He already had the media connections to report on it. That is why Hope ended up in the New York Times, LA times, Juxtapoz and Urb. Yosi was getting promotional help by the company Polite in Public image. Then the company Hit & Run started printing shirts of the image. Money was made. Do you see what happened? Pr firm, Obama campaign, Shepard Fairey, pr firm, company, company, company, viral hit, company, company and the rest is history minus the truth. During that whole time Shep, Yosi, and anyone interviewing the two called it a grass roots effort that was purely user-generated. Look at those links! Yosi says himself that there was no promotion going on. No promotion is a joke. From the start they printed off posters that would have cost anyone else thousands of dollars to do. Urban Oufitters even bought exclusive rights to sale the shirts and bought over 62,000 units from Shep’s company Obey. The media makes it look like Shep was some poor artist on the streets barely getting by but the dude owns a company that was making him a fortune long before Obama. He has been living comfortably off of his company years before this. They had the resources and media connections from the start. It was not a grass roots movement started by artists nation wide. It was started by opportunists playing on the emotions of a nation that wanted change. They knew thousands of artist would want to be the next Shepard Fairey so they made Shep their posterboy. Shep got what he wanted because now he is making mad money with his book, selling out shows, and has work in the Smithsonian. He just played the entire system.

Anonymous said...

I think you wish you were as successful as Shepard Fairey.You are a nobody. What have you accomplished? Nothing. People create Obama art because they want change. Painting and drawing is a good way to expressive yourself. Maybe you should try it instead of creating conspiracy theories. Learn to fight for a cause instead of talking trash.

Anonymous said...

You moderate comments. You won't post this coward.What people really need to know is that Brian Sherwin is a tool.

Anonymous said...

So who is the tool here? Do I agree with Brain all the time, no of course not. But he gets respect as moderator and does a good job, even though he has deleted a few of my comments and I have threatened to through a slipper at him, soft and fuzzy though it may be. :)

He may have felt I was attacking personally someone, and though I was, it was as a general symptom of the sickness that racks the Contemporary art world, that of the lowered ceiling of academia, so any fool who is lazy and self absorbed can call themselves an artist, as long as they buy themselves a fine arts degree. What some call education, I call market driven brainwashing.

But that is both his right and job, and if he felt I went over the line, I may very well have. Thats his job, so be it. Accept, or go elsewhere, I dont deal with AFC or winkleboy much, cant read that drivel anyway, though AFC is just a nice, sweet party girl, Winkie is a pseudo intellecutal passionless fool. Needs to find another field where he can be of some use, art doesnt need his games, and cute irrelevant witticisms, pure silliness.

But then, thats just me. I do have more slippers Brian, but you with shoes need to hit yourselves in the head, and knock some sense into yourselves.

art collegia delenda est

Balhatain said...

Someone can curse me out until they are red in the face for all I care.

Donald, I do have to hold you back at times. As I've mentioned to you before-- I would have a hard time finding people willing to do an interview if they assume it is a snark-fest. :)

Anonymous said...

I understand, we are all adults here. Well, some of us. But I do have a deep Royal blue fuzzy slippers here at hand just in case. Dont worry, already threw the pink one at AFC girl, and a pair of cowboy boots at Winkie, brokeback boots.

Bush is gone, my boys got a new boss, thank god. Just maybe they will be able to tell David from the only other black Naval officer in San Antonio now. Idiots are everywhere. Off to medical school anyway, praying for good scores on his MCAT in two weeks, but I have confidence, And lots of old shoes to toss.

Anonymous said...

I don’t see why Shepard Fairey is not prosecuted. I know street artists like SWOON keep their real name secret because they can be prosecuted for vandalism in connection with the criminal side of their work. So why has Shepard Fairey not been prosecuted to the full extent of the law? How many times can he get hit with small fines before serving time. The guy makes his name known and documents running from cops on his site. His crew speeds off which puts people in danger of being hit just so the punk can avoid another fine. I know kids who have ended up serving time for the same thing. White street artists are treated differently than black ones.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your concerns about the way the Obama art movement has developed. I write from the perspective of an artist living in a very isolated environment - I dwell on the Maine coast at the Canadian border. I'm on-line and listen to the radio, but don't have television and haven't traveled to any city in the past several months, so I wasn't aware of how large this movement was/is at all. I was sitting here one night in early December, putting the finishing touches on the face of a a doll, and it reminded me of Obama. Completely accidental. I made my first doll when I was four, love to make dolls, so thought, why not intentionally make an Obama doll? I was truly inspired by his election. And I felt truly inspired when I created the doll. I had such a good time making the first doll, I decided to make more. You can see the dolls at .
So there are definitely some of us out here not being paid or coerced or herded into creating Obama art. Whatever peoples' motives are I think it's great that so much creativity is being expressed and shared and I hope art starts to matter more to this nation, regardless of subject matter.

Anonymous said...

Thought everyone should know that Yosi Sergant has been appointed to the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. I guess it pays off to create a mock grassroots movement. This corporate PR firm pig has stolen history!