The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident

Artists have a duty to dissent-even against Obama


For over 14 years, I've been professionally involved in the street-art community, hosting events where artists paint live installations, and producing and promoting national art tours. I've personally known the key players behind the Barack Obama "Hope" posters for many years—one being a former employee of mine, another a former colleague. I'm excited for their accomplishment and sense of pride for participating in Obama's historic presidential campaign. When asked by my former employee to be involved with the Hope poster distribution, I declined on philosophical grounds, but fully appreciated and understood their passions.

But that said, it feels to me, as it did during the campaign, that the art community is not meeting its duty of always questioning those in power. And I say duty because the art community, as a counterpart of the press, has been given special rights written into the Bill of Rights, known broadly as freedom of the press, for the explicit purpose of keeping power in check.

Throughout modern history, art typically enters politics on a mass scale in two fashions: first, as a check on power; second, as a tool used by those in power. Freedom of the Press comes into play in both cases, but in very different ways. In the first case, it protects political commentary by artists. This freedom is not a garnish. It is a necessary weapon, enshrined in the Constitution for the purpose of countering contradictions, hypocrisies, and distortions made by politicians and others in power. Yet the art community has responded to the Obama administration's contradictions, hypocrisies, and distortions with near total silence.

Consider the recent flurry of debate over the Obama "Joker" posters that have been appearing in Los Angeles. This image represents the only substantial counterpoint to Obama's current agenda from the art community. What's been the response?

One writer from the LA Weekly declared of the image, "The only thing missing is a noose." Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post stated, "So why the anonymity? Perhaps because the poster is ultimately a racially charged image." Bedlam magazine, the first to comment on the poster back in April, argued, "The Joker white-face imposed on Obama's visage has a sort of malicious, racist, Jim Crow quality to it." Why would any artist who hopes to have (or keep) a career create images that criticize the president when both journalists and art reviewers make such irrational comments? To give some perspective, remember that the "noose" comment came from a publication that once presented a cover image of George W. Bush as a bloodthirsty vampire.

When I first saw the Obama Joker poster on my block in April I tried to read the website featured in the upper right-hand corner, but it was too pixilated to decipher. Is anonymity part of the artist's message? Possibly. However, if anonymity is not a part of the message, can you blame the artist for wanting to remain anonymous given the irrational and racially-charged criticism the poster has received?

I find it hard to believe that the Obama Joker creator is the only serious detractor (assuming that it is a critical commentary) within the art community. And I'm sure the incendiary criticism will keep others from creating similar images. But regardless of political affiliation, the art community must embrace all rational dissenters. Art must not exclusively serve the interests of any presidential administration.

It's time for the art community to return to its historical role in political affairs, which means speaking to power, not on behalf of it. Which leads me to the second case where art enters politics on a mass scale. The power of art, in combination with the suppression of free speech or a free press, has been used as a tool by authoritarian governments to control their citizens. From Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, art has been used to deify leaders while preserving the position of the ruling class. Most artists would not want to be referred to as tools of the state, but in the case of Obama's administration, that's exactly what they've been so far.

Patrick Courrielche is a marketing strategist, art community consultant, and co-founder of the non-traditional advertising agency Inform Ventures, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at