Bad design is all around us, but there’s no bad design like bad election year design. Let’s take a moment here to catalog some notable atrocities from recent election cycles, and then hang our heads in bipartisan shame. Offender number one is Bush/Cheney’s militantly mindless logo from 2004; you can almost hear the designer making phlegmatic war movie sound effects to himself as he drafted it. There’s Howard Dean’s bumper sticker from the same year – the one that actually had goddamn yellow crayon writing on it. I sent the good doctor a whole bucketful of cash and I still couldn’t bring myself to slap that thing on my car. The Kerry/Edwards ‘04 logo was so incompetently designed it looked like an advertisement for a personal injury attorney named "Kerry Edwards" (and not one of the better ones, either). As for this eyesore, which looks as if it belongs on a bottle of your dad’s favorite aftershave circa 1982, the less said, the better. The sad fact is most campaign materials look, at best, like they were designed by an adjunct professor of design at an unaccredited two-year evangelical college (which may well be the case in some of these campaigns). At worst, they just drip willful contempt for the viewer’s intelligence and taste.
But think now for a moment about the material Barack Obama has been putting out in the last year. Start with that typeface the campaign uses on all of its official signage, a sans-serif called Gotham. It’s clean, assertive and streamlined. Regardless of your political or aesthetic inclinations, you can easily appreciate that it’s the kind of elegant typeface that you don’t really see in most political campaigns. Gotham was created only a few years ago by a prominent New York typographer, but it draws heavily on mid-century sources, and there’s resultantly an authoritative, timeless sense to it. It looks great and it’s highly functional. Gotham is a capital-M Modern typeface that carries all the cultural implications of Modernism with it – optimism, clarity, progress.
I know that seems like a lot to pin to something as simple as a typeface, but in the current electoral visual landscape, Obama’s clean, simple design look downright radical, like it came from another world. It certainly calls to mind some of the more inspiring parts of our collective past, but not in a way that panders to baser reactionary tendencies.
A show of New Deal art called By the People, For the People will be closing this weekend at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Museum (you can read Julie Caniglia’s outstanding review of the show for mnartists.org). Seeing it a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much the work on display reminded me not of fireside chats and Woody Guthrie ballads, but of the junior Senator from Illinois. I doubt that it was a conscious decision on the part of Obama’s design squad to make explicit references to the aesthetics of the New Deal in his campaign material. But think of that Shepard Fairey poster that looks it like it came right out of an IWW print shop. Think of the explicit references to the American heartland in the campaign’s it’s-a-flag-but-it’s-also-a-farm "O." Even that ridiculous Latin-enhanced faux-presidential seal that the campaign trotted out a few weeks ago (and then promptly retired) bore a strong resemblance to the logos of FDR’s so-called "alphabet agencies" like the NRA, WPA and CCC.
Throughout the show, I detected a certain philosophical, functional and aesthetic kinship between our era and this one – it’s all easily-deciphered, populist, progressive art-making practices in service of the civic good. I don’t know if it is Obama’s intention to suggest outright that he’s the direct heir to FDR’s high-minded hard-times liberalism (and his detractors would say he’s hubristic enough to do just that). But there is something stirring about his campaign – yes we can! – that owes quite a bit to the outsized optimism of the 1930s, and a lot of that has to do with the aesthetic decisions Obama’s campaign and his supporters have made.
Much of the work in the Weisman show was created by obscure regional artists working under the auspices of the WPA Federal Art Project, another one of those alphabet agencies that put American artists to work capturing the Great Depression on paper and canvas. I should say rather that many were obscure at the time, and then went on to have very successful careers later. But most did not; most were artists that were paid to do a job well, and went out and did it. As you might expect with work of this nature, it really ran the gamut in terms of quality. Some of it was very staid and workmanlike, some of it was quite distinguished. What was most remarkable about all of it, though, was the uniform clarity and toughness throughout with which the subject matter was depicted.
The Great Depression battered America in a way that makes our recent economic troubles seem piddling by comparison, but there is a sense to all of the artwork that America is perfectly capable of drawing on its strengths and pulling itself out of unimaginably difficult circumstances. It’s a broad coalition of regular people, too, that will step up to carry out that task, the kinds depicted in the work – miners, laborers, scientists, factory workers, sharecroppers, truck drivers, builders.
The Weisman show reminds us that artists, too, were a part of that populist coalition. With the death of Jesse Helms this month and all the editorial hand-wringing that has followed regarding the late Senator’s one-man crusade against contemporary art, we forget that artists could ever be a part of a broad-based populist coalition. And yet there they were, being paid to document the troubled times in which they lived and aligning themselves not with the elite and the influential, but with the dispossessed and the downtrodden. Granted, the work they made was not always popular with those Americans it depicted, and the kind of s
ocial realist art the WPA produced is often bogged down by the struggle between the high-minded principles it espouses and the difficulty and grittiness of the subjects it depicts. But thinking back to those pre-Culture War times and considering that talented artists would be permitted, and even encouraged, to engage in such a dialogue – well, that’s what seems most surprising and satisfying.
One of the best surprises for me in the show was a photograph of farm laborers by Ben Shahn, the much-admired mid-century painter and printmaker. Shahn was the kind of old-school Brooklyn Jewish left-wing artist that the Obama campaign, for all its talk of inclusion and progress, would probably take great lengths to demographically disassociate itself with – too radical, too East Coast, too "elite"! I’d had no idea Shahn was out there in the field snapping photos for the Farm Security Administration, but there he was, right next to Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. Would an Obama administration give a contemporary Ben Shahn, an artist with demonstrably leftist sympathies, the opportunity to get out there into the heartland and create art? Would a contemporary Ben Shahn even want to undertake such an endeavor? Hell, are there even any artists left in his adopted neighborhood of Williamsburg making political art?
Obama’s campaign has been a fascinating one to watch. At times I have felt (a) like it seemed too good to be true, (b) like it was the true last hope for whatever might be salvageable of the American dream, (c) like the whole thing was hopelessly personality-driven and vaguely demagogical, (d) like Obama might be the only major political leader in my lifetime I could get genuinely excited about, and (e) like it was all noble sentiment and erudite speechifying with no real call to sacrifice and action – often all of these confusing sentiments within the space of a week. Many Americans on both ends of the political spectrum also felt the same sort of ambiguity about Roosevelt. FDR’s harshest critics went so far as to decry him as a Fascist, a charge that has recently been unearthed again in two recent books from both the right (Jonah Goldberg’s phenomenally stupid Liberal Fascism) and the left (Nicholson Baker’s elliptical account of the lead-up to WWII, Human Smoke).
When we look at this moment in time from a purely aesthetic perspective, it seems to me that we’re looking at a mainstream progressive movement that values good artistic practices and welcomes artists back into the fold, for perhaps the first time since the New Deal. In fact, one of the minor planks in Obama’s long-term plans is the creation of an "Artist Corps." Would the Ben Shahns of 21st century Williamsburg clamor to join such a movement for the good of the nation? Before you answer with a flip remark about the callous solipsism of the youth of America, it’s worth visiting this gallery of Obama-specific street art, which runs the gamut between officially-sanctioned campaign iconography and totally wacky guerilla work. Compare it to these beautiful specimens of WPA poster art. Even if Obama’s cult of personality is a bit overemphasized at the expense of the broader issues in much of the newer art, I would say the aesthetic, functional and ideological parallels are readily apparent, and the comparison on all counts is generally favorable. It looks, at very least, like the opening arguments in a long overdue national discussion over what role art is going to play in contemporary political engagement. That’s something worth getting fired up and ready to go about.