Our 44th president is an artistic obsession. Whether it is anger and disgust, or hope and admiration, artists have had no problem expressing their feelings about Barack Obama. Ranging from the cheap and tacky items of mass production to expensive and highly original oil paintings, for better or worse, his image is everywhere.
Jon McNaughton, maker of super- literal anti Obama art is America’s most prominent Tea Party painter. He will ask about $300,000 for One Nation under Socialism, which portrays a deadly serious Obama burning the Constitution. It is his third anti-Obama painting, following The Forgotten Man, which depicts Obama stepping on our sacred founding documents while a sad every man sits on a park bench, and One Nation Under God, which went viral last year and features Jesus observing proud patriotic Americans against the liberal media, activist judges, and single moms. Bloviating Fox News personality Sean Hannity bought one of McNaughton’s works for an undisclosed amount; the other two originals are expected to bring in six-figures apiece.
Obama art sells prominently on E-Bay and Etsy ,so the market is there, but no one else is asking nearly as much as McNaughton is for their work. Still it is possible to find a variety of interesting pro- and anti-Obama art for sale to the masses. We have a handmade clay mask of the president’s face selling for $200. There is the “collectable gargoyle” Obama available from catalog retailer Toscano at $4.95. The listing says it’s “A sure-fire conversation starter on your desktop and the perfect collectible gift for any history lover or political aficionados!” Taken by Storm is a bead painting of the White House after Obama’s inauguration. This thing retails for $5,200. Yet another image is a new twist on the classic car decal featuring cartoon character Calvin peeing on something. On Chevy pick-up trucks, Calvin is usually peeing on the Ford logo; on Fords, Calvin pees on the Chevy logo. This re-imagining has Calvin depicted as a coal miner peeing on the Obama campaign symbol, which by the way has been deemed socialist in its origins by non-other than former Fox News host Glenn Beck. It’s real cheap, only $7.99 and it’s yours.
Canvases like the Obama paintings are made to be reproduced as cheesy giclée prints — a mass-market process akin to a high-tech version of your home computer’s ink-jet printer. The process creates a simulation of paint on canvas. A giclée is an inauthentic painting, which is a pretty good description of all of McNaughton’s anti-Obama work.
The system is similar to one used by the late Thomas Kinkade, (The painter of light) who just happened to be a conservative Christian like McNaughton. Kinkade, also like McNaughton, produced schlocky paintings and mass-market prints to become a very rich man. Applying Kinkade’s successful shtick to Obama during an election season reads like a lame attempt to become the anti-Shepard Fairey, whose Obama Hope poster made him a celebrity in 2008.
Speaking of Mr. Fairey and his poster, Barack Obama Hope became an iconic image almost immediately. It features a stylized stencil portrait of Obama in solid red, beige and (pastel and dark) blue, with the word “progress”, “ hope” or “change” below (and other words in some versions). The work was created in one day and printed first as a poster. In an inspired bit of word of mouth marketing, Fairey sold 350 of the posters on the street immediately after printing them. It was then more widely distributed—both as a digital image and other paraphernalia—during the 2008 election season. The image was initially distributed independently with the approval of the official Obama campaign. The image became one of the most popular symbols of Obama’s campaign, spawning many variations and imitations, including some commissioned by the campaign itself. This led The Guardian’s Laura Barton to proclaim that the image “acquired the kind of instant recognition of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, and is surely set to grace T-shirts, coffee mugs and the walls of student bedrooms in the years to come.” In January 2009, after Obama had won the election, Fairey’s mixed media stenciled portrait version of the image was acquired by the Smithsonian for its National Portrait Gallery.
For his trouble Fairey was sued for compensation by the Associated Press once the original photograph Fairey used for the likeness was revealed. The image came from freelance photographer Mannie Garcia shot in April 2006. In response Fairey in 2009 sued for a declaratory judgment that his poster was a fair use of the original photograph. The parties settled out of court in January 2011, with details of the settlement of course remaining confidential.
What happened next may be proof of the old adage “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover up”. In February of 2012, Fairey pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to destroying and fabricating documents during his legal battle with the Associated Press. During the course of his 2009 lawsuit Fairey claimed that he used a different photograph for the poster, not the Mannie Garcia one. But he admitted that, in fact, he was wrong and tried to hide the error by destroying documents and manufacturing others, which is the source of the one count of criminal contempt to which he pleaded guilty. Fairey could face six months in prison, a year of supervised release and a $5,000 fine. He will be sentenced this month.