In early August, MoveOn called for supporters of Senator Obama to submit visual art about the candidate and his ideals. A panel of judges including Fairey, artist Ross Bleckner, Moby and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth picked five winners from more than a thousand submissions. The winning work was ultimately exhibited in Denver's Andenken Gallery and an adjacent warehouse, alongside the work of pop artists like Ron English and Sam Flores. Manifest Hope also threw a party during the convention with high-profile acts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. That was, of course, after Fairey and a few others spent 15 hours in jail for hanging posters in downtown Denver, he says. Below, Fairey talks about art's role in politics.
Why did you and MoveOn decide on a contest?
What we were really trying to accomplish with the Manifest Hope gallery was to have people recognize that art is a very significant and influential component of grassroots activism. We like people to take initiative and empower themselves.
How does art work in grassroots politics?
Art is an amazing way to engage someone viscerally. If they're predisposed to rejecting a certain idea expressed to them verbally, art might get them to let their guard down and just be excited by an image. When someone is stimulated emotionally by art, they tend to want to justify that emotion. So the art engaging them could be the gateway to a different perspective on any topic, any subject. A lot of people have told me they thought, "Obama's too inexperienced" or "He's weird." Then they saw my image and were moved by it, so they decided to go to his website. The next thing you know, they're fully enrolled.
Is that when art becomes propaganda?
People have been asking me, "Do you think art is great propaganda?" The idea behind the art that I'm making isn't that you look at it and turn into a brainless zombie who will do whatever the art tells you. It's to stimulate you to analyze the subject matter and come to your own opinion. It's just the first step. I do think art has this leeway for interpretation—think about the ink blot test—that just does something a little different than a slogan alone or a photograph. There's something that each person can bring a little bit of themselves to. That latitude for interpretation allows people to personalize—that relationship with a piece of art is really powerful.