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Name: George Musoke

Module Cord: M01CMC

Module: Communication Culture and Media Theory
2008 - 2009

Declaration.

"I confirm that this assignment is entirely my own
work; no part of it is copied from previous assignments or
other students work, nor does it include material from any
published source without proper acknowledgement".

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The aim of is this assay is to critically analyze a cultural artifact, which epitomizes

our relationship to contemporary conditions with reference to appropriate theoretical

perspectives and arguments. The artifact that we are going to analyze is that of

Barrack Hussein Obama, the now president of USA. It is well known as the ‘HOPE’

poster. It was drawn by Frank Shepard Fairey, a contemporary artist, graphic designer,

and illustrator. The cultural artifact selected for analysis can be said to surely have

social, cultural, political and economic connotation. The once campaign poster for

‘Hope’ designed by Shepard Fairy played a significant role in his campaign and went

on to be given much prominence that it was imitated by politicians in other parts of

the world. Due to the fact that there are nearly no texts written about Obama or the

image its self, we will use the Internet for some of our research.

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When culture appeals to the public on a basic level, it offers images, characters and

stories that fit within the prevailing mood, which further reflect a generations’

underlying values and predispositions. This process can be seen in a wide variety of

cultural artifacts such as movies, popular music, television and art.

In a broader sense, cultural artifacts reflect prevailing attitudes in society and shape

those attitudes for the future. ‘We’ are aware of the issues raised by such reality, the

reality that specifies cultural artifact as often self-reflexive. It examines itself and its

effects even as it produces those effects in a social setting.

The Obama image is one of those artifacts that epitomize our relationship to our

contemporary conditions because it reflects wider issues of cultural conflicts and

cultural shifts in a diversified and globalized world that we live in today. Through this

image I see my world, I see what is subjective, I see what is objective, what is true

and what may be false. However, I also do call attention to the fact that it is an artifact

or an illusion even with its discourses that give rise to widespread perceptions and

understandings.

With this approach, am self-conscious and self-referential with the intention to look at

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the image from both the outside and the inside. Thereby, shaping my understanding of

the world as it creates an identity for generations after me and for me. As Tayler puts

it, the way in which a person sees and defines him or herself is a constitutive part of

his or her identity (1996:33).

Beside the abundance of beauty and good in this work of art, its ability to represent

the world of today is beyond exceptional. By viewing it from various disciplinary

perspectives, what is seen is a critical reflection of the role and value of cultural

artifacts in any society under transformation.

From one perspective, the cultural impact of photograph arises from the fact that it

appears in history or historically and we may say that at its earliest configuration, it

did not necessarily lend itself to anything as a cultural artifact other than a

photograph.

While Sheppard Fairey represents an important technical advance in what could be

called photographic cultural politics, it works as a thunderbolt of connection between

us and the new world where hope and uncertainty governs the day. His work helps to

analyse and examine social change. The signs and codes it refers to can be regarded as

historically and culturally specific, however these codes and signs embedded in the

artifact is what makes meaning possible, thereby, enabling us to interpret and make

intelligible the world around us.

Fairey’s image is not a social commentary but rather perfect in keeping with what I

describe as the sentimental and expressive aspects of the 21st century. Representation

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in an artifact generally is a very complicated issue. The societies we live in are so

multicultural that it becomes difficult for all cultures to be represented accurately in

the genre that the artifact offers. Many artifacts of this kind have been misinterpreted

either as racist or homophobic.

Fairey’s image however brings to mind the post-modern condition of the absorption

process that involves the manipulation of the array of texts operating within cultural

artifacts that demonstrate an increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the conditions

of their production, circulation and eventual reception. Fairey tackles issues of gender,

race, class and representation among many others by putting together a combination

of colours and having these colours interact. This interaction is what makes the image

worth recognising. This gives some sort of power for Cultural Revolution. It portrays

the position of a non-white, non-coloured man in society. This all-pervasiveness of

different strategies of re-articulating and appropriation is one of the most widely

discussed features of post-modern cultural production.

Newcomb and Hirsch notes that ritual and the arts offers a meta-language way of

understanding who and what we are, how values and attitudes are adjusted, and how

meaning shifts. It often focuses on our most prevalent concerns and deepest dilemmas

(Holmes 2004).

It seems incredible that drawn from politic power, comes cultural influences which

have come to have such significance in the imagination of the world. It has inspired

the young, the old and the forgotten. The critical response to the image has been

universally postmodern in tone, accepting and endorsing the idea that this is an image

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so drained of its intent that it is nothing more than a perfect reunion of the past, the

present and the future. The distance between this cultural object and Obama’s beliefs

is now so great that most people who know nothing of the ideology or politics that

inspired the real man tend to associate with him.

Images have a way of shedding context, shaking off history. But Fairey snapped the

shot in the idealistic first blush of the 21st century. The image extended mysteriously,

apparently with a will of its own. The image that was produced in 2008 quickly

mutated and it was not because of the look of the image, but of popular art and the sly

conflation of culture, celebrity and commerce.

Even though the shadows and complexities of Obama’s life and legacy disappear as

well, when the man becomes a symbol, to some extent, the imagery looses little.

Some may say that it is maybe the shedding of Obama’s charisma and ideological

rigor that renders the image so ideologically supremely marketable today. But to me it

has also grown into a symbol of something more. It serves as a proof that a person can

live out his or her dreams and achieve his or her goals. It shows that determination

and sacrifice can pay off in unimaginable ways. It’s more than a statement, more than

an image, more than a starting point for debate, more than an experiment. It is a

vibrant and concrete example of what it is to dream of something and actually live it.

The imagery testifies to a moment when people imagined the future could be better.

It’s hard to make that claim today, which makes that imagery look even more utopian

and attractive. It is obvious that Obama’s image has become an international icon, a

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product with instant brand recognition, now safely divorced from its revolutionary

beginnings. One thing that is also clear is that the image also speaks to the wider

popularity of the communist aesthetic, the trend that dates back to the birth of

Constructivism in 1920s Russia, a movement in art, design and architecture.

In reality Barack Obama’s image is not of a revolutionist like that of the famous Che

Guevara. It’s however right to recognise the similarities in their posture. In Fairey’s

portrait, Obama is not wearing a beret, and he’s looking left instead of right, but his

face tilts at the same angle as Che's. His jaw is set with the same willfulness and

strength, and he too is gazing recognizably upward into the future. Obama’s eyes are

filled not with righteous anger but with vague and lofty hope. Obama’s image means

change, not necessarily Marxist or anti-imperialist or radical in form but it can even

symbolize dissatisfaction of the nation about the way globalization has weakened the

creator.

Trying to tie this poster design to Cultural Revolution or Stalinist communism seems

to fit the description with a brief examination of how it affects the creation of identity

and social order. This work of art provides numerous perspectives into the nature of

the human condition and the individual’s role within it. The images’ rampant

projection pose may suggest a disturbing national dilemma, but again projects a leader

graceful enough to come to everyone’s rescue, which can be interpreted as

centralization, totalitarianism and the pursuit of communism.

Whether the national dilemmas that it projects are moral, psychological, or both, the

individual must come to affirm a tie with the procession of life, must come to achieve

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some sense of brotherhood through the image in itself. One has to give up a secure,

ordered and innocent world. The individual becomes liable to a fearsome array of

complex emotions that we attach with in this artifact.

The image was released at the time at which most Americans believed that the so-

called American dream is dead or dying, the country was facing an uncertain future

with many Americans who were disillusioned frustrated with their government. The

irony was that this seemed to reflect the mood of the entire world. The image’s effect

on our conscious from this perspective could be viewed as a hypodermic needle. The

image on the whole is inclined to the uncertain effects of class, gender and race. One

of the unifying features of it is that it makes one feel empowered with its hope

massage.

While it’s true that many people may not know much about the connotations

assembled in the artifact, there are many individuals who are very well aware of the

meaning behind the face. The image can theoretically be found just where it belongs,

in the niches reserved for cultural icons, for symbols of social uprisings that filter

down deep into the soil of society. The power of the image ultimately comes from the

fact that Obama is a genuine sign of society revolution, a journey beyond segregation

and injustice. It is this authenticity that gives the image its force and is the one thing

image-makers cannot hope to manufacture.

Even though its Obama’s legitimate credentials that gives this artifact its iconic status,

another irony is that it’s found all over the world especially even in places where there

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is resistance to the neo-liberal assault. This doesn’t come across entirely successfully

in the exhibition as too much is left unsaid.

Should we say that the artifact has been used and abused, appropriated by the very

powers that renders its importance. The fact of matter is its interest to cultural, media

as well as social geography, history, Diaspora studies, postmodern and postcolonial

theoretical formulations and its popular cultural forms within the subcontinent and

across international borders with its forging hybrid forms also being an important

focus. It is one of the most influential figures today. To some it represents the end of

the Regan capitalism, the revolutionary ideas behind it inspires a generation of young

adults across the globe to look at life from their perspective. In them is me, it has

become more than an image of the first black or mixed president of USA to achieving

an iconic status beyond mere celebrity, with far reaching effects difficult to

exaggerate.

The red, cream and light-blue image depicts a pensive but determined-looking Obama
gazing upward, with the caption ‘HOPE’. It became a familiar sight on buttons, shirts
and other items gaining Fairey a ‘thank you’ letter from Obama and more than
$400,000 in profits according to published reports. This all because he is responsible
for transforming the picture into a stunning, abstracted and idealized visual image that
creates a powerful new meaning and conveys a radically different message from the
original that was taken by a digital camera. It is a cliché to say that a picture is worth
a thousand words. To me it represents a new world, a mixed but one world, the
outcome of the globalisation era in which we tend to be classified as one even though
we have different backgrounds. Thompson defined this globalisation as ‘… the
growing interconnectedness of different parts of the world, a process which gives rise
to complex forms of interaction and interdependency’ (1995: 149).

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Any picture that alters the interpretation or viewing of the picture also affects these

thousand words. This analogy pertains to the wide worldview of literature. We might

as well say that the artifact does not depict male characteristics like other

revolutionary artifacts that may be attached to modernity.

In those images men were expected to conceal their vulnerabilities, suppress their

emotions but that seems not to be the case with this Obama image. Its like we are

prompted to believe that the world overcome its cultural anxiety about masculinity

which was based on a narrow image of the traditional white middle-class heterosexual

male ‘masculinity crisis’.

Masculinity according to many is a set of behaviors and attitudes that are constructed

and maintained by a complex system of rewards and punishments. But as some do

believe that we are entering a new world, it’s clear that the ideology of the strong

male is at odds with the ideology of togetherness.

Marx believed that the causes and consequences of revolution were linked directly to

capitalism. His political theory was that power and virtually every other aspect of

social life flowed from economic institutions. The reality is that the process by which

people fulfill their material needs determines societies’ culture. Laws, religion,

education, politics, and belief systems are based on this economic reality. From

Marx’s point of view, the starting point for understanding the nature of power in

societies is to understand how people solve the problems of survival (Marger 1987).

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If this is true then there is no reason not to believe that the revolution in the society

towards racial and gender differences is a work of capitalism. With a greater look at

the artifact that am discussing, one may suggest that it is neither masculine nor

feminine. It seems right to say that we live in a society that is going through this

transformation; the artifact excludes any attributes that are thought to be masculine

like. An important transformation today is how a photograph portrays our culture.

Barack Obama is seen as a sensitive, secretive and cautious individual who functions

emotionally, seeking everyone’s best interest said Dr. Rice a Co-Director of the

Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television, and New Media, at University of California,

Santa Barbara. (http://www.comm.ucsb.edu/people/faculty/rice.php)

To say that our culture is changing with the man himself (Obama), or Obama’s

election is not to say that he has made it change. However it is true his presidency

represents a change in the world that was not imagined of three decades ago. We all

tend to follow these changes with or without the knowledge that we are doing it and

we can’t stop it happening. As Bauman puts it, ‘immobility is not a realistic option in

the world of permanent change. And yet the effects of that new condition are radically

unequal’ (1998:02).

As a mixed-raced president, Obama literally embodies a changing culture (Time Inc

2009). Being African-American has not weakened Obama’s position for any post but

has given him a peculiar advantage. As the first African-American president, he is

supremely well positioned to transcend the liberal obsession with diversity. Barrack

Hussein Obama represents the triumph of cultural Marxism, or perhaps we should say

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simply Marxism (Fjordman 2008).

We may be convinced that the artifact exposes the mood of the contemporary

condition in our society today and allows the questioning of what might otherwise be

accepted as inevitable, however the question as to how it mediates the contradiction

between good and bad about identifying with it still remains. Our view of identity is

derived from the non-essentialist view, which defines identity as a process of

historical, social and cultural construction. Each individual has a ‘multi-layered’

identity and, in different circumstances, in light of the situation and context, a

different component (ethnic, gender, class, etc.) is preferred over the others

(Woodward 1997).

It seems obvious that artifact is of great discourses. But we recognise these discourses

in the context of hypermodernity, we are forced to do so due to the nature of

hypermodern persuasion. By this we have to perform the often difficult and

sometimes impossible task of separating the hypermodern Obama’s legacy from the

artifact its self. However we also have to appreciate the hypermodern characters that

are highly calibrated machines for producing ideologies. Such people influence the us

because our society accepts the premise that human identity is a construct. Obama’s

oratory has thrilled and elevated those who are favorably disposed to his message and

politics. He can elevate those who don’t share his politics as well as citizens of

diverse cultures (Prospect Magazine 2008)

As we conclude therefore, we recognise that with its discourses, the Obama poster

“Hope” has also deployed the visual style of graphic poster design used by the

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Bolshevist agitprop artists of the 1920s. The graphic newsprint-like reproduction

gives the work a sense of political urgency, playing with the idea of the image with

mass appeal. The aesthetics of the image convey the spirit of progress and hope

experienced both in the early Soviet context and in the Kennedy era. As contemporary

viewer I read the poster’s graphic style as evoking a very modern kind of hope and

optimism recoded within a savvy postmodern culture. The elegance of the poster is

worth noting, with its deployment of a blue that is lighter than the stars and stripes

blue, and a yellow warm tone—evoking yet not fully using the conventions of the red,

white, and blue.

REFERENCE

BOOKS

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Thompson, J. B. (1995) The media and Modernity, A social Theory of the media
Cambridge: Polity Press

Bauman, Z. (1998) Globalisation: The Human Consequences. Great Britain: TJ
International LTD Padstow

Woodward, K. (1997) Concepts of Identity and Difference. Identity and Difference.
London: Sage and the Open University Press

WEBSITES

The Brussels Journal (2009) Barach Hussein Obama and the Triumph of Marxism
[online] available from <http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3613>[27 March
2009]

Johnson Publishing Company (2008) Jabari Asim on Barack Obama [online]
available from <www.ebonyjet.com/culture/literature/index.aspx?=id=11274> [27
March 2009]

Prospect Magazine (2008) Obama’s Moral Majority [online] available from
<http:www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10583> [27 March 2009]

Time Inc (2009) Pop Goes Washington [online] available from http://www.time.com
/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1873117,00.html> [27 March 2009]

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