Art, Politics & Society

The Story Behind... Obama's "HOPE" Poster

The political commitment of an independent artist

The poster was not ordered by Barack Obama’s campaign team. Fairey spontaneously came up with the idea and made more than 300 000 stickers and 500 000 posters out of it, at his own expense. He funded them by selling about 300 posters on the first day of print, as well as derivative products.

Still, Obama’s team quickly perceived the strong political potential of this piece of art. They even asked the artist to change the subtitle of the picture, which was originally called « Progress ». They thought the word « Hope » better symbolised their candidate’s campaign. Fairey accepted and made the « Hope » posters which we all know today. Other versions with the words « change » or « vote » followed. The poster went viral and became the embodiment of the hope of millions of Americans.

By contributing to the emerging myth of Obama’s campaign, Fairey’s piece of art had an undeniable effect on the presidential election.

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl even wrote that the poster was « the most efficacious American political illustration since “Uncle Sam Wants You“ ».

In February 2008, Obama himself thanked the artist in a letter that was made public: « I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status-quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support. I wish you continued success and creativity. »

An acclaimed yet controversial work of art

The poster received large media coverage, and it even became institutionalised when the Smithsonian Institute acquired one of its versions for its National Portraits Gallery. Due to its success, it was subject to many analyses.

Obama’s gaze, facial expression and three-quarters profile brilliantly convey his vision, his idealism and his seriousness. The chosen colours -red, blue and beige- and the pin on his chest remind of the American flag, thus showing the candidate’s patriotism. Moreover, the use of colours on the candidate’s face might be a way to nuance the importance of race and lay the emphasis on the country’s cohesion and unity, which was also Obama’s credo. In a nutshell, the poster combines the efficiency and the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda and Warhol’s art.

These key visual elements were often re-used in other contexts and applied to other political figures. For instance, it was used as sarcasm against Donald Trump, with « Nope » as a subtitle.

But the history of the poster is not as rosy at it seems. The artwork is based on a photograph taken in April 2006 by Manni Garcia for Associated Press, thus it is a piece of appropriation art. The problem with appropriation art is that the difference with plagiarism can be very thin. In this case, a legal dispute occurred between the photograph and the artist. The former claimed copyright whereas the latter said it was fair use. Eventually, Fairey had to give a share of its earnings to Associated Press.

Besides, the poster was also criticised as it made Obama’s skin colour invisible and gave the impression that America had entered a « post-racial era », whereas race discrimination and inequalities were still rampant in the United States. This criticism already carried within it the reproaches addressed to the future Obama administration.

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