Additional Information about H. Brian Holland’s Lecture
Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster remains an iconic image from the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. By repurposing iconic aesthetic elements of Soviet, Chinese and German propaganda posters, as well as those found in many domestic campaign posters, Fairey sought to create an ironic and idealistic message “designed to capture the optimism and inspiration created by Obama’s candidacy.” For Fairey and others—those interpretive communities sharing similar semiotic regimes—the aesthetic of the poster was interpreted through social conventions of the young, smart, and hip. Within his community, the message was positive and successful.
As various other interpretive communities encountered the posters, however, divergent flows of discourse developed, producing multiple distinct and often contradictory meanings and effects. Two distinct themes were dominant. The first focused on Fairey’s use of propaganda imagery and the underlying fears that Obama’s election would lead to the imposition of an alternate, non-capitalist economic system; the rise of a dominant, totalitarian government that would threaten basic liberties; and the elevation of a leader with cult-like status. The second theme, in some ways related to the first, accused Obama and his supporters of equating him to the messiah or a messiah-like figure.
This discourse highlights the struggle and uncertainty surrounding the employment of particular symbols. The imagery, once released into a multitude of social contexts, was out of the author’s control. In many of these contexts, the author’s desired meanings were not missed by the audience but simply rejected.
There is remarkable evidence here of the struggle for power through control of social convention. The Fairey posters themselves served as raw material for countless mash-ups by supporters and detractors. Obama is variously portrayed as a Communist or Socialist, as Hitler or Che, as a false messiah, as a fraud, or as a snob. Other propaganda posters superimposed Obama’s face on iconic posters from the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Nazi Germany. These mash-ups evidence both individuals’ attempts to negotiate the meaning of the Fairey posters, and the struggle against the author’s attempt to control, transmit, and maintain meaning. Moreover, these images are themselves evidence of certain dominant social conventions within the various interpretive communities from which they emerged — only to be engaged, negotiated, and challenged once again.
The presidential election of 2012, although lacking such a singularly powerful image as the HOPE poster, presents similar evocative symbolism. Exploring these images provides a glimpse into the underlying struggle to define and control the very basic conventions of American society—how actions and ideas will be embraced, rejected, or even vilified.