The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was the culmination of years of work. His advisors prepped the States by suggesting to the writers of The West Wing they use a person of colour to run as president in their show. Obama’s own ability to speak well helped too, as did his way of articulating a connection to all minority groups in America, if not the world. He was young and fresh, a new force who could revitalise a stagnant political world stage and move the entire world in the right direction. If President Obama achieved anything like that is a whole different story for a whole other time, but as the now iconic poster says, he was hope.
You know the poster because there’s literally no way anyone in the world hasn’t seen it. It entered cultural consciousness. The flattening of images and intense use of colour looks like it must be a recent thing, but it wasn’t invented by Shepard Fairey. He began life as cool artist whose work Andre the Giant Has a Posse became the OBEY Giant (which somewhat ironically began as a parody of blindly following political propaganda, now everyone who thinks they’re a little bit edgy blindly obeys and buys an OBEY beanie.)
Barbara Kruger did it first and did it best. Cutting her teeth as a graphic designer, she turned those sharpened teeth onto popular culture, consumerism, sexism, fashion, and racism. She became famous for her use of now-iconic typeface (Future Bold Oblique, if you want to try it out) layered over images she found in magazines or newspapers. The image’s meaning changes completely with the new text on top of it. Maybe it’s a young kid flexing his arm with a girl looking over at him, poking the little boy’s muscles. The image alone enforces the stereotypes we all know and hate – the man is muscle, powerful, and protecting. The woman should be impressed and grateful. The text reads “We don’t need another hero.’”It rips the stereotypes in half, and changes the perception of the image. The girl now looks like she’s being sarcastic, indulging a male ego. She’ll probably yawn at him next.
Kruger deals in the immediate, not hiding her meaning or keeping it for the kind of people who are willing to spend all day staring at a smudge of paint until they go ‘hmm’ and head to the café. Kruger’s immediacy is like being hit in the face with something that should be so obvious, how come you haven’t noticed it before? There really isn’t much, if anything, hidden beneath the surface of her work, you don’t have to stand in a room with only two light bulbs and look at the image at a 47 degree angle to get the meaning. It isn’t esoteric, Kruger wants you to understand what adverts and magazines are telling you. Kruger’s done the heavy lifting for you – that’s the point. The found image she’s taken from the magazine contains a hidden meaning which might not be apparent in their original context. Kruger writes what they’re actually saying on top of them in huge letters. The image doesn’t hide its message anymore.
Kruger understands to an almost obscene degree how culture is created, and how it’s disseminated to the public. That’s us. Images are crucial to the formation of a culture, and are dangerous when they’re peddling stereotypes about race and gender, or when they’re telling us we should shop because owning things will make us happy, even if we just throw them in a cupboard to let them gather dust until the end of time. Kruger’s work lifts the veil on these images. She reaches behind the veil, pulls out their meaning, and sticks it in huge letters for all to see. She dissects culture in a clear, easy way so that no one can be uncertain of what they’re being told.