'Restoring Honor,' Appropriating Images: The Conservative Movement’s Co-optation of Shepard Fairey’s Obama Portrait

Curator's Note

In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Obama campaign capitalized on the youth-oriented ‘cool’ of popular culture like no other campaign had done before. One of the most vivid examples of this is the iconic red-and-blue Obama “HOPE” portrait, created by graffiti artist and street fashion entrepreneur Shepard Fairey (founder of Obey Giant). Originally designed as a poster, the portrait became an enormously fashionable image during the campaign, featured on T-shirts sold by the thousands by retailers like Urban Outfitters and endlessly circulated and parodied online. The cultural ubiquity of the image came to symbolize Obama’s rock star-like popularity, particularly among young people.

Two years later, as the midterm elections loom on the horizon, the visual culture of the American political scene has undergone a dramatic, if somewhat predictable, transformation. The conservative opposition to the Obama administration, sensing a shift in popular momentum, has refashioned itself as the new arbiter of political ‘cool’ by appropriating some of the Obama campaign’s most successful marketing images. This strategy of cultural co-optation is readily observable in the conservative movement’s wholesale embrace of Fairey’s Pop Art-inspired graphics. Rather than rejecting this design scheme for its association with the political left (indeed, many observers have pointed out the similarities to Jim Fitzpatrick’s 1968 ‘radical chic’ portrait of Che Guavara), conservative marketers have instead opted to take advantage of its current popularity while simply replacing Obama’s face with those who they believe inspire ‘real hope.’

The video clip shown here contains photographs which I took at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in Washington DC, held in August 2010. Billed as a ‘conservative Woodstock,’ the event was a veritable coming-out party for the American right’s post-Obama visual culture. The Fairey-esque portraits of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin, juxtaposed with the words “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity,” served as the official images of the rally and were printed on T-shirts sold by Beck’s own website. Other T-shirts worn by crowd members displayed portraits of Bush, Reagan, and even Jesus Christ in the familiar red-and-blue design scheme. The photos dramatize how quickly political iconography can evolve in our rapid-fire media culture.


Those are terrific photos, Joel.  What an incredible visualization of the Right's usurpation of Obama's hope narrative. 

When you were at the rally--one that for Beck was not political--did you glean the crowd's reaction?  Did they attend the rally to advance political issues or did they embrace Beck's more generalized religion-infused celebration of "America"?

I'm also intrigued by the nostalgia for a mythic American past documented by these shirts.  The Right has claimed not only Reagan (obviously) but also the Founding Fathers.  What can we learn about the power of image and the shaping of discourse from their savvy positioning of the Republican party as real agents of change?  How did the Left loose control of their own narrative?

Thank you for the great questions about this piece. At the Glenn Beck rally, I observed a great amount of right-wing political advocacy. Anti-Obama T-shirts were also in abundance, as were a multitude of Tea Party shirts, "Don't Tread on Me" flags, hats, etc. Beck's assertion that the event was not political was something akin to Fox News claiming that their coverage is "fair and balanced." The posture of apolitical patriotism seems to me to be highly strategic - an attempt to naturalize conservative ideology by presenting it as mere common sense.

I would also make a similar argument about the Jon Stewart rally, which I also attended and documented with photographs. While the rhetoric on stage might have been geared towards a moderate "compromise" message, the crowd was much more willing to openly ridicule the Tea Party and Republican politicians. Again, by insisting that the event was apolitical, the organizers were able to dodge accusations of partisanship while encasing their strongly ideological message within a discourse of common sense. In my view, the theories of Stuart Hall regarding the naturalization of ideology in media and popular culture are applicable in both cases, Right and Left.

As for the use of images of the Founding Fathers, I think you raise a very important issue. The struggle over articulating who the Founding Fathers really were and what they were really about is one of the great ideological battles of U.S. politics. Again, I'm borrowing an idea from Hall (via Laclau), in this case the theory of articulation. Image production and manipulation are indeed at the center of this "struggle in discourse;" my research on the political iconography of T-shirts focuses precisely on this point. I anticipate that the response of the Left to the Tea Party electoral victories will be a further re-articulation of the American historical narrative. One T-shirt I saw at the Stewart rally illustrates this move rather well: it reads "The Founding Fathers were all East Coast Liberals."  

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.