Art, Design, Iconoclasm, and Politics: The Obama “Socialist Joker” Poster
Posted on August 10th, 2009
Let me start by saying that this poster makes me mad. I hate the way ‘socialism’ has been turned into an epithet, and I hate the way that epithet gets used against a fairly market-oriented politician like President Obama to keep him from straying too far into egalitarian policies. Also, I see this image of the first black President in white-faced makeup, and I feel attacked. I voted for Obama, I think he’s doing a pretty good job, and I’ve invested a great deal of my own hopes for the future in his success. This image feels like an assault on all that.
Philip Kennicott at the Washington Post gives voice to my feelings:
By using the “urban” makeup of the Heath Ledger Joker, instead of the urbane makeup of the Jack Nicholson character, the poster connects Obama to something many of his detractors fear but can’t openly discuss. He is black and he is identified with the inner city, a source of political instability in the 1960s and ’70s, and a lingering bogeyman in political consciousness despite falling crime rates.[...]
Urban blacks — the thinking goes — don’t just live in dangerous neighborhoods, they carry that danger with them like a virus.[...]
Superimpose that idea, through the Joker’s makeup, onto Obama’s face, and you have subtly coded, highly effective racial and political argument. Forget socialism, this poster is another attempt to accomplish an association between Obama and the unpredictable, seeming danger of urban life.
Kennicott interprets this poster as an argument: he identifies all the feelings it inspires in my gut and asserts that they were deliberately placed there by the artist, who wants to oppose the President’s policies and perhaps especially his party in the next election. This poster, Kennicott hints, is another image from the opposition party’s ‘dirty tricks’ book. It’s dog whistle politics: a “subtly coded, highly effective racial and political argument.”
Kennicott is wrong. Though no one knows for sure, I don’t think this image is even really a political image. It wrenches at my gut every time I see it, and it’s clearly about politics, but it’s not political. In my view, it’s what’s sometimes called “culture jamming.” In order to understand why this interpretation is most likely, I’m going to show you some more pictures.
First, a little history. Heath Ledger’s Joker character has been used widely on politicans. Obama may actually have been the last of the 2008 candidates to receive the “Joker” effect:
So it was a popular trope in 2008. In fact, it seems to have begun with the center image, drawn by Drew Friedman for Vanity Fair. In my opinion, there’s something simplistic and poorly thought out about depicting your political enemies in this way, but it’s not particularly hurtful. So why does it bother me so much more that Obama’s image was given the “Joker treatment”? Is it because he’s a black man being put in whiteface? Is it just because I like him better than these other politicians? Maybe it has more to do with the word ‘socialist’ underneath? It must be “socialism,” because this image isn’t actually new. Obama was depicted this way, sans “socialism,” on January 18th by a Flickr contributor known only as khateeb88. The artist even wrote underneath, “Not indicative of my political views.”
He (she?) was just messing around with photoshop. From the rest of her Flickr feed it appears that “khateeb88″ is a student in Chicago. Apparently “khateeb88″ enjoys manipulating famous images in order to produce humorous or surreal results. Here’s Napoleon Bonaparte on a motorcycle, by the same artist. The rest of the collection is in the same vein: a Guitar Hero spoof advertisement for Quran Hero suggestst that the student is Muslim, as do many photographs of Egyptian landscapes and architecture. A complaint about Rahm Emmanuel confirms that “khateeb88″ is not a typical conservative:
President-elect Obama has appointed Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff.
Emanuel is a fervent anti-Islam voice in Washington. A Zionist, he takes a hard line stance against the Palestinian cause, and shows a clear anti-Muslim racism.
Besides that, he is the embodiment of “political partisanship” that Obama was supposedly going to change!
I guess we can only blame ourselves. He said “change” we just never bothered asking if he meant good change or bad. Looks like things are not going to get any better or different in Washington.
Change we shouldn’t have believed in.
Note: I am neither Democrat nor Republican, Conservative nor Liberal, didn’t support Obama or McCain.
I just call it like I see it.
So that’s not really so bad, is it? In context, as a playful image manipulation, the altered photograph seems to be just another in a series. Perhaps tinged with some disappointment, as is indicated by the past tense of the artist’s “Change we shouldn’t have believe in.” The artist’s intentions are readily apparent from context, and there’s neither a strong racial nor political motivation, or at least not the one that Kennicott observed. Since it’s a lone undergraduate, not a vast right-wing conspiracy, there’s nothing important to see here, just move along folks….
But of course, that’s not the end of the story, because at some point, someone started making posters of that artist’s image, without his/her permission, and adding the word ‘Socialism’ underneath. So maybe that’s the real harm, here: that a found image was put to a purpose in combination with a popularly misused word. The image is threatening, in just the way Kennicott explains (“urban” rather than “urbane”) while the word hammers home the negative association for a select group of fervent anti-socialists. Originally just a joke, in this new context, perhaps the image really does signal racism and opposition to the president’s policies. Except… it really doesn’t.
Come on, work with me here. What’s the message? Let’s see: “the first black President in white face is an anarchist socialist.” Can you think of any message more self-contradictory? It just doesn’t make sense: all the offensive things cancel each other out. If I tell you that “green ideas sleep furiously,” am I arguing in favor of green ideas or against them? Surreal nonsense doesn’t become political merely because it makes me mad: in fact, surrealist producers of nonsense love to take advantage of our deeply felt loyalties and fears to order to achieve their goals of sabotaging the reign of logic.
And who would want to be associated with such a nonsense message? Who wants to defend it? Well, people like Kennicott believe that it’s more of a rallying cry for racists, a dog whistle to be heard by those who are listening: “Obama is evil. He will destroy our cities with his violence.” The only message here, Kennicott suggests, is something like “bad man” + “bad idea.” Precisely because it works on an emotional level, it serves both as an attack and a source of solidarity for the nascent opposition: an attack on health care reform, or the bailout, or the stimulus bill.
Heath Ledger turned in a brilliant performance in that role–it’s no wonder that his version of the Joker make-up has become iconic. And of all the incredible moments in the Dark Knight, none was so bone-chilling as the Joker’s attempt to destroy the country by forcing Congress to pass a single-payer health care plan. I went to a late show on opening day, and it was more than a week before I could sleep well again. I just kept thinking, “Dear God! What if some madman really did end medical bankruptcies in the U.S?” The twisted genius of it is gut-wrenching.
I thought this was brilliant, and so did a lot of others. It’s sassy and funny and angry but on-point. But it assumes that the art has a particular purpose. Horace Rumpole chimed in with another great one-liner, again on the same premise:
I wouldn’t mind seeing Obama show Glenn Beck how to make a pencil disappear.
Ha! Wonderful: “Why so serious?” Normally, I can’t imagine Obama even raising his voice in anger, but for a moment there you can see the whole scene play out… I’m sad to say that it satisfies something primal and angry in my soul, to have my scholarly President transform into a deft action hero. (I used to love Harrison Ford in Airforce One for much the same reason: “Get off my plane!” Come on, you’d all vote for Harrison Ford.)
So, powerful as the image is, it doesn’t actually defend itself very well against witty comebacks. It’s too simple and obvious to be truly offensive, and it’s too dangerous to be adopted as an explicit rallying point for those who oppose Obama. I’m left feeling more supportive of the President and sort of chortling at the guys who thought that “bad man” + “bad idea” was a good enough message to campaign on.
But, as I wrote above, I soon began to realize that something else was going on, something apolitical.
Purely on the level of images, the Obama/Joker connection is a classic mashup: two images that don’t quite fit each other but that both stand out enough to survive the “mashing” or “jamming.” The same thing goes for ‘socialism.’ No one who knows what that word means really thinks that Obama is a socialist. It is used it only with bile, as an epthet, the way ‘liberal’ is sometimes used, as if the speaker is disgusted to have the word in her mouth and wants to spit it out. People keep using the word in this obviously irrelevant way because of its iconic qualities. It’s a totem or a fetish, a curse to cast upon enemies. When words and images lose their meaning like this, we stop being able to really talk to each other about matters of national concern.
Here’s the thing that even his supporters must admit about Obama. His image and his name have become iconic. Think about the famous Shepard Fairey poster. When you look at our current president, you’re always seeing him, a little, through the lens that this image created. It’s a great, iconic image, and it says that Obama will unite red states and blue states because he’s a little of both: he’s half-black and half-white, half-conservative Harvard Law School elite and half-radical Chicago populist. It hints at a post-racial, post-partisan world… and so it also lies, a little, because we can’t and shouldn’t hope for that. It’s an extremely popular, effective image, that tells a story or conveys a message by layering the message thickly, because ultimately it’s really just saying: “Vote for Obama.” It’s at least as effective as the images of Heath Ledger in the Joker’s makeup that have also become iconic. Those images are popular because his makeup not really a clown’s makeup: it’s a death mask of some sort, and making Ledger look corpse-like, because that’s appropriate given the mood of the movie. Obviously, it seems grotesque and prophetic because Ledger died of an overdose or of sucide so young and tragically. With all that popularity and overdetermined meaning, Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup has basically become a cliché.
Another way to look at the Shepard Fairey print is that it looks an awful lot like traditional Russian Orthodox icons, those magically-imbued pictures of saints that Orthodox Christians worshiped almost as if they were real manifestations of the divine. What I’m trying to suggest is that Obama’s image has become a bit too beatific, a bit too saintly. Even for those of us who agree with his policies, his image needs to be brought down a peg. In this, I see the pranksters putting up the “Socialist Joker” images as traditional Iconoclasts. We all benefit from efforts to de-sacrilize Obama’s image, even Obama! There’s a reason they wait to canonize you until after you’re dead: no one living can really live up to the fantasy.
By defacing the iconic image of the President with this iconically evil makeup, and then juxtaposing that maship with the iconic curse word “socialism,” the distributors of the poster are aiming at a kind of semantic overload. Just as graven images allegedly impede our access to God, the icon of Obama intervenes between citizens and genuine political engagement, and these new iconoclasts seem to be working to desacrilize the image, to render it inert. Like all iconoclasts, they’re efforts appear to those who worship images to be destructive… but their intentions are simply counter-cultural. Iconoclasts remind us we live in the real world, not an ideal one. In this case, they seem to be saying that race and partisanship didn’t disappear when Obama took office. I suspect that it’s most offensive to those who still experience the world primarily imagistically: journalists, for instance, and cultural commentators. Perhaps that’s why it irritates me so much, typing away and hoping that words and ideas will have effects.
Some of our anxieties, like those of expressed so well by Kennicott in the Washington Post, sound an awful lot like magical thinking, as if drawing on a picture of the President might actually harm him! That’s more politics as voodoo: “I have pricked my homunculous with this pin, and you will soon bleed!” But if there’s one thing that this President “stands for” it’s the hope that we can all agree to live in the “reality-based” community.
In another way, the poster campaign serves as a parody of Obama’s critics, like a hyperbolically offensive New Yorker cover from last year. For those who really thought that the Illinois Senator was some sort of crypto-terrorist, the cover seemed like liberal elites were jokingly thumbing their noses at the risks and dangers. To the rest of us, it seemed like a great send-up of unfounded fears. The “Socialist Joker” Obama is so full of negative stereotypes that it seems to do this, too: the more I dwell on my reaction, the more embarrassed I am to have been so easily and cheaply manipulated.
This kind of radicalization of the minority party is ideal for Democrats. Consider moments of surreal crazy, like when recent a Vice-Presidential candidate makes comments about Obama’s “death panel” condemning her children to death (that’s insurance companies, for whom Down’s Syndrome is a ‘pre-existeing condition’!) These kinds of zealous fantasies allow the majority party to depict their anonymous foes as racist and unreasonable. In my opinion, commentators who have tied the tea party movement and the current health care town hall protesters to the Birthers and the distributors of this poster overstate the case a bit. We’ve seen majority parties do this before, when Republicans worked diligently to associate the anti-war protesters with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Frankly, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to attribute such base motivations to your political opponents unless there’s unavoidable and unignorable proof: the principle of charity is doubly necessary when we disagree on so many fundamental issues. Instead, we should embrace the opposition as a helpful corrective to narrowmindedness, and test our ideas with reasonable disagreement in mind. That seems much more likely to lead to the best policies than does purely cultural partisanship.
Anyway, using it in a partisan way would backfire. Republicans can’t rally behind this image precisely because, at best, it doesn’t make any sense. It raises too many questions about what exactly socialism is, about how it’s related to the Joker’s nihilism and anarchic violence, and about how any of this is related to Medicare or health care reform. Bush as the Joker was a coherent enough image, though remarkably uncreative, but not Obama, and Republicans know it. Worse, if they do start rallying behind it, the poster’s racial overtones threaten to decenter and discombobulate their hoped for unity! For Republicans, it’s a Catch-22: no help at all.
Of course, much of my analysis depends on the attribution of intentions to the anonymous distributors of this message, and the asusmption that the poster can’t be put to other, more clearly political uses. For this, I can offer only slightly more evidence: all the parodying and destruction happens at the level of the image. There’s no call to violence or performative political work going on here: no racists are emboldened, and no African Americans (least of all the President) are terrorized or threatened.The Joker parody doesn’t change who Obama is or what he’s working towards, and it doesn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already irrationally frightened of him of a threat. No stereotypes are cemented, no paranoia confirmed. I know from socialist, and you, Mr. President, are no socialist.
Even if it’s not political, of course, it might still be racist. But I don’t think it is. Some artworks only succeed because of their context. This one only succeeds because we live in a country that constantly struggles with racism and that constantly suppresses that struggle. But the same thing could be said for Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Just because it’s about race and it plays with at my discomfort about racism doesn’t mean it’s actually racist! Given the history of depicting Presidents and Presidential candidates in the Joker’s makeup, I don’t see an unbroken line connected “blackface” minstrelry to this new kind of “whiteface,” Kennicott’s argument notwithstanding. Even on the most angry reading of the original artist’s intentions, the equation of Obama with the Joker was intended to indicate his continuity with the military policies of his predecessor from the perspective of an Egyptian Muslim: it’s not about black people enslavement by white people, but about brown people who have died as a result of our collective belligerence.
To sum up, the “Socialist Joker” poster is not racist propaganda, it’s great art. It’s great art because it changes no one’s mind but it still sticks in your craw. It makes me angry even though there’s no coherent message or argument being made, even though I know that the image, itself, was produced as a sophomoric exercise in photomanipulation rather than a masterwork of voter-manipulation. It says: “I’m going to manipulate you and you’re going to know I’m doing it, but you’re still not going to be able to stop me.”
As I said at the outset, it’s not political even though it’s about politics. After seeing this image, no one will change their mind about Heath Ledger, Barack Obama, or socialism. However, they’ll remember the image. And that’s really why it’s great art: it’s selfish and parasitic and useless. It provokes pointlessly. It refuses to treat serious matters with the reverence they deserve. It loafs and coasts and freerides. It’s interested in nothing other than its own self-propagation.
God, how I hate great art.
UPDATE: This entry has been edited a good deal since it was first published. I moved sentences, expanded and emphasized points, and imported pieces of a comment I wrote in response to a request for clarification, which is still below. Perhaps most importantly, I have added information about the original artist, including the likelihood that he or she is a Muslim art student in Chicago.