BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 27 MAY 08

Primary Colours

Looking at the outpouring of design projects surrounding the Democrat candidates and previous presidential campaigns

BY Jennifer Kabat in Opinion | 27 MAY 08

Maybe all the pollsters telling Hillary she’s toast needed to look no further than my tiny village for their prognostications. It recently got its first bit of graffiti and it was pro-Obama, no less. Looming from a retaining wall by the road into town was a stencil of Senator Obama looking a little like Che Guevara. Until a couple weeks ago, nary a spray-painted swear word polluted the pastoral surrounds of Margaretville, New York (pop. 600, if you’re lucky), an area that is far more red than blue. Most cars proudly display yellow support-our-troops stickers – not to mention ones saying, ‘Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.’ And yet the creative outpouring surrounding Obama’s campaign has reached even here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Obama lists his alternative career choice as architect and is the first ever presidential candidate to have been born in the 1960s, the artistically-inclined have taken his ‘Yes, we can’ mantra in various directions. Arcade Fire are playing gigs for him while from the Black Eyed Peas had his ‘We are the World’ moment roping in all sorts of stars for a little light rap. Shepard Fairey, creator of the ubiquitous André the Giant ‘Obey Giant’ image, has come up with stickers and posters inspired by the World War II-era Works Progress Administration posters. (They’ve of course quickly sold out, now going for upwards of US$500 on eBay.) There’s even an entire Flickr group solely dedicated to Obama street art with nearly 300 images including a Banksy-style Obama addressing the US. hosted a make-your-own-Obama-ad competition: Obama In 30 Seconds’ was something like a political Pop Idol, complete with an odd combination of ‘celebrity’ judges – among them Matt Damon, Lawrence Lessig and Moby – that saw 5.5 million votes cast. The half-minute submissions ranged from claymation globes to hand-drawn animation, not to mention a few Obamacans – Republicans who have made the switch. The ads generally all have a warm and fuzzy feel-good factor which rarely appears anymore in American political campaigns. My favorite was Josh Garrett’s They Said He Wasn’t Prepared: the voiceover describes a little-known, inexperienced senator from Illinois whom people said couldn’t be president. The twist? It’s Abe Lincoln.


This certainly isn’t the first election year to get artists’ involvement. Eugène Delacroix was recycled for the Mondale-Ferraro campaign in 1984 in honour of the first woman on the vice presidential ticket, while, in 1972, Warhol took on Nixon. In a pro-McGovern poster, Tricky Dick was rendered acid pink and institutional green (both of which remind me, bizarrely, of the picture of my dad standing alongside Pat Nixon and Imelda Marcos that I coloured in with highlighters during a punk rock phase in high school).


And Hillary, what does she get? Lest you think me partisan, quick Google searches for ‘hillary graffiti’ and ‘hillary street art’ – even ‘Hillary Clinton’ – netted nothing: no one is picking up the spray can for her. Though Elton John did play a benefit concert at Radio City and she can count Marc Jacobs on her side. In 2004 after the last election Jacobs designed T-shirts emblazoned with a Che-style image of Hillary’s face (what is it with Democrats and Cuban radicals?). His Bleeker Street store windows crowed, ‘Hillary for President’ when she was still just the junior senator from New York. Now he’s reprised the effort with a new tee: an airbrushed Hillary beams forth, looking some 30 years younger and sporting a toothy teen-girl grin. The only dash of colour on the shirt is her flag pin. Need I say more? The flag plays well in the sticks.


Just this last week, as if trying to get some traction against Obama, Tony Puryear, screenwriter for the 1996 Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser, has created a new Clinton poster. It looks hauntingly familiar, reprising Fairey’s ‘30s-era graphics, faded shades, imperial visage – and nearly the same typeface used by the Obama campaign (only the tip of the ‘A’ is different). As Karl Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), ‘First time tragedy, second time farce.’ He was talking about political dynasties after all.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.