While we tend to think about the nexus of art and government as a more recent phenomenon American artists have long thrown their artistic weight behind US Presidential candidates, though not always successfully. Case in point, George McGovern’s 1972 run for the White House.
While browsing some online auction catalogues (which I often do, call it a guilty pleasure), I came across this image by Calder (above) in the upcoming Doyle New York (April 27, 2009) auction. It encouraged me to finally articulate some thoughts that have been perculating in my head about the more propagandistic Fairey images for Obama and their significance.
Both Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol, undoubtedly giants of 20th C. art, created works for the failed Democratic candidate George McGovern during his race against Republican Richard Nixon.
While Warhol created a single print for McGovern which demonized Nixon by painting his face green and blue, Calder, like Fairey in our own day, produced a whole series for the South Dakotan Senator.
Andy Warhol, Vote McGovern (1972) Print, stencil, Coll. Nat’l Gallery of Australia
About Warhol’s treatment of McGovern the Guardian wrote in 2001:
As a relic of a moment in American history associated with chicanery and paranoia, this is a bold assertion that truth lies on the surface.
Perhaps Warhol’s intended message was too sophisticated and obtuse to be understood by a mass audience. If Warhol’s images are often perceived as quick and easy to understand, their power is derived from their ability to contort meaning until they appear ambiguous and ironic–two qualities that don’t work very well in a political message. Warhol’s image also–probably inadvertently–contributes to the mounds of data that a clear positive message always outshines a negative one. Here, the prince of pop doesn’t make a case for McGovern as much as against Nixon, so why were we suppose to vote for McGovern again?
What is noticeable in Calder’s McGovern series is that nowhere does it offer any insight into the man or politician. The artist, best remembered for his mobiles, has created generic designs that could very well be advertising a circus performance. There is also one major oddity…for our time the notion of McGovernment, which Calder highlights, seems repulsive to us and I’m not convinced that it was any more appealing in the 1970s when alienation from the US government, which was carting off kids to die in Vietnam, was high.
Regardless of what you think about Shepard Fairey’s art, the images he created for the 2008 Obama campaign were not only iconic but clear, positive and viral, all qualities that these two greats of the 20th C. were never able to achieve with their political campaign images.
During our own time even Robert Indiana’s Obamart–the HOPE image (sculpture, poster, painting), which he created specifically for the Obama campaign–was much more successful than the 1972 works but he still falls short of Fairey’s success since it relies to heavily on the nostalgia and glamor of his 1960s LOVE icon.
This is not to say there aren’t obvious weaknesses in Fairey’s Obama imagery. Aesthetically his HOPE/PROGRESS image (they are the same) is awkward and too reliant on….. In contrast, his CHANGE image is more heroic and classical in its composition and meaning without being overly
Other prints by Calder for McGovern’s 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign: (left to right) McGovern (1970), lithograph, 29.25″ x 22″; McGovern (1972), lithograph, 30″ x 43″; McGovern for President (1972), lithograph, 32″ x 24″.