Essays

“Hope” As I See It From Across the Sea

by Debu Barve on August 19, 2011

A Fairey "Hope" poster in Boston right after the 2008 US Presidential elections. (via flickr.com/geoftheref)

PUNE, INDIA — Yet another “season” of American elections is at our doorstep. “Season” is well-accepted television jargon in India now. Many young, urban Indian tele-watchers who follow The Big Bang Theory or wait for the next season of Castle have picked up the “season thing” easily. These young Indians also ardently follow and virtually participate in the very wellorganized, entertainingly televised and “branded” drama of American elections. Besides television, access to the internet with live information bombarding and constantly propagated graphical and video content has changed the scenario forever for our times. Staying updated about any specific domain or subject of your interest is click-easy.

In 2008, sitting in my home in Pune, India, which is two and a half hours outside Mumbai, I also accessed and watched the process of Barack Obama being elected against her Democratic competition Hillary Clinton, and I enjoyed Tina Fey’s splendid parody of Sarah Palin. I saw the debates, followed the election tours and witnessed Obama’s historic presidential win. And of course I saw Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” (2008) poster. It seemed to have almost become a mascot for the event.

Shepard Fairey signing another poster from his 2008 Obama series. (via flickr.com/nostri-imago)

“Hope” became a sensation overnight, and Fairey became an art superstar. The poster made the predictable journey of popular endorsement, controversies, acquisition by an esteemed museum (in this case, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery) and then had its share of endless parodies and imitations. Fairey’s New York solo show in 2010 attracted record-breaking opening crowds, and I got glimpses of all this from YouTube videos and reports in various blogs. I can see that Shepard Fairey is probably here to stay. He will be discussed by art pundits, purchased by museums and collectors worldwide and (I fear) sooner or later will earn a dedicated page in the some type of “important artists of the century” book.

I do see that some bloggers are sharing apprehensions and reacting sternly to this kind of art-world applause. I too have my views about Fairey’s work because I’m indirectly linked with its existence and acceptance. It hardly matters where I live geographically — as far as I’m linked with the art world, I’m linked with the “Hope” poster. The image does not remain a piece of art to be discussed only in the US, but it immediately becomes the talk of the entire art world.

Frankly, the feeling I get out of HOPE is that something which was a mere graphical response created on the backdrop of the 2008 elections, has became an important piece of art. How well does it fare if it is evaluated as a contemporary incarnation of a cultural lineage that goes back to the New York graffiti/street/underground art tradition? I’m a big fan of Keith Haring’s marvelously original art, I cherish superbly stylized posters by Victor Moscoso and I enjoy immensely R.Crumb’s style and satire. All these people and their art have touched me in the process of understanding the world from an artist’s viewpoint, and I can see the contribution that they make. But, in my opinion, this decidedly never happens with Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster or the key works that have followed thereafter.

Now it does not matter if a person lives in the US, India, China, Chile or Bulgaria to feel associated with and be affected by an art work or image. We physically live in the world with established borders but virtually and professionally float in and out of the sphere of our choice. Here I am speaking in the context of “Hope” but I believe this can be easily extended to any work of art or artist which aspires to be recognized worldwide.

The 2012 US election season will kick off soon and perhaps many wannabe’s will be working hard to meet this deadline, hoping to achieve the same type of art world recognition Fairey did. And who can blame them?

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  • http://jdsiazon.com JD Siazon

    The “HOPE” poster stands as testament to Obama’s campaign lies of 2008.  With three foreign wars and high unemployment rates here in the US Shepard Fairey should disown that poster and reclaim a voice more in tune with the streets he supposedly champions.

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