Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
December 17, 2008

Barack Obama: TIME’s Machiavellian Leftist Of The Year (Or, Shepard Fairey Takes TIME To The Bank)

TIME Obama Person of the year.jpg

The moral, I think, is that some things are better left alone. Such as Shepard Fairey’s original Obama poster.

Unfortunately, Fairey’s make-over for TIME seems to play on the Machiavellian idea that a clever, charismatic and left-wing Obama (when was the last time TIME fronted a peace sign?) exploited a couple key issues, turned himself into a pop icon, and scored the presidency out of it.

Reading the pop art cover re-do left-to-right, I see an upward-looking guy who mostly took opposition to the Iraq War (occupying about the top quarter of the illustration) and more talk about alternative energy, wrapped those issues in a patriotic package, and then leveraged the early support of the peace movement (lower right) to curry favor — in light of the public’s profoundly low regard for Washington — to score enormous cash from the teeming hordes (see crowds right of the dollar sign … and lower left, too).

What this shallow illustration seems to bypass, however, is how Obama really won the presidency, which — beyond all the packaging, and the cultish fans, and the war issue — was his demonstration of judgment (on issues as diverse as talking to foreign leaders; being more assertive regarding Pakistan; and not finessing the scale of the economic meltdown) as well as his calm and steadiness under fire.

Besides TIME’s own Obama-envy and the blatant play to a younger demographic, the illustration, as much as anything, seems to telegraph Fairey’s own desire to cash in on the original artwork — another reason for the poster-within-the-poster on Obama’s collar just under his chin, not to mention the enormous dollar sign.

(Fine-tuned 12/18)

(illustration: Shepard Fairey. Cover, TIME’s Person of the Year issue. Dec. 29, 2008)

  • susan

    He looks half white, half black to me.

  • black dog barking

    Yes, there seems to be a collective disinterest in the mechanics of President-elect Obama’s ascent. He repeatedly sidestepped the gatekeepers, marshalled tools available to everybody in ways none of his competitors imagined and made his case directly to the voters. The Fairey poster is one example of a political tool, the poster, breaking through its traditional boundaries. It is both serious enough for top level political campaigning and just plain cool. The “O” logo is another. And the McCain website looked an awful lot like the Obama site (with web 1.0 table-based HTML roiling just beneath its cloning surface).
    I get the feeling that most of our entrenched pundit-ocracy comfort themselves with the idea that somehow Obama got lucky. Bullshit. His campaigns have changed the game without changing the rules and not a single talking head has publically noticed. Wonder if they’ll figure it out when their networks have to start paying studio audiences to sit through their shows a la Dennis Miller.

  • EssJay

    I want a pair of Obama banners Mayor Daley has hung around Chicago.
    Here’s a photo (not mine)
    Scores of events/festivals/institutions are honored with banners each year, all over the city. The popular ones are auctioned for charity. Obama’s will earn big $$.

  • richard dent

    Wait a minute — Dennis Miller is paying his studio audience?
    If that’s for real, I need employment. How do I sign up?

  • boxcar

    well done, BagMan! Your detailed deconstruction was dead on.
    Gotta go and see this thing.
    (Also, so i am not too proud to be dumb: off to
    now google Shepard Fairey… ;)

  • Sergei Andropov

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the very prominently displayed Islamic designs.

  • KansasKowboy

    When I first looked at this I thought that the wind generator was the peace sign.
    Then I saw about 1/3rd of a peace sign in the right hand corner. Apparently they didn’t have enough guts to display the full image of the peace sign. But that is the corporate media for you. They were probably afraid they might loose sales of the issue if a peace sign was prominatley displayed on the cover. But I thought it was interesting that the wind generator invokes the peace sign. I like images that have double meaning. I think I might make a T-shirt with the wind generator doubling as a peace sign. The meaning of the image would be mideast peace is possible with the elimination on huge amounts of foriegn oil. Like Carter tried to tell everyone so many years ago.

  • Michael/The BAG

    Sergei, can you elaborate? I did think the figure next to Obama’s left ear was wearing a keffiyeh. Kansas, I like that call on the generator. Maybe the cover is really forecasting a major Mid-East peace initiative?

  • black dog barking

    Wait a minute — Dennis Miller is paying his studio audience?
    Back when DM converted to Bush/ Cheneyism thereby qualifying for wingnut welfare his revamped cable show struggled to find an audience — not just asses on the sofa in front of the tube but also asses in the studio for taping (not on stage). Taking “papering the house” to the next level the show offered to compensate patrons for the otherwise wasted time. IIRC the going rate was $15 per half hour show.

  • Sergei Andropov

    Because Islam has traditionally frowned on the depiction of humans and animals, Islamic art has historically focused on two frequently overlapping areas: calligraphy and geometry. Although calligraphy is the better known of the two, Islam’s accomplishments with geometric art have been utterly without parallel. Such designs appear several times in the image; the most obvious (and most distinctively Islamic) being on Obama’s right cheek. Stylistically, it resembles this, though the underlying geometry is different. I could have sworn I’d seen it before, but I wasn’t able to quickly find it.

  • Recluse

    My first thought was they’ve made him black and white. But no, red and white. Hunh. No brown anywhere. Red, white (offwhite), and blue everywhere. And a straight line of demarcation between red and blue at the very top, still and forever apparently.
    I wonder what the daisies are.

  • jean

    Susan, your half black, half white comment made me look at the cover again. I think it seems more half Red and half Blue than anything. As in Republican/Democrat. Perhaps Fairey is trying to say Obama is a centrist.

  • tophue

    o.m.g. did any of you watch the video on the time site where he describes the reasoning behind each of the design choices!? i mean seriously… this is a classic case of you reading into it what you want to see in it…
    instead of taking money from crowds, perhaps you can see obama entering into the white house facing a people out of work and a collapsing economy. instead of islamic imagery, perhaps we can see that art and design is an international language and that we can use even texture and pattern and an opportunity to reach out…
    its an excellent redesign of an iconic image marking a magical moment in our worlds history.

  • evan

    “Fairey’s own desire to cash in on the original artwork ”
    And you link to his clothing company’s sample sale? You’re so full of hot air, Shaw.
    Obey’s had clothing sample sales for years, well before he ever designed his iconic Obama poster – just like any normal clothing company does.
    If you knew a lick about the illustrator, you’d know he actually shows quite a bit of humility.
    “By the election I had made three hundred thousand of those posters and half a million stickers, a lot of T-shirts, done a lot of billboards, and large painted-in mural installations in different cities. It was all done grass roots and it was just funded by selling some posters and reinvesting the money. I just put all that money back into making more stuff, so I didn’t keep any of the Obama money.” – Shepard Fairey
    Get off your psychological high-horse, do some research next time.

  • sohbet

    Wonder if they’ll figure it out

Refresh Archives

Random Notes