It should come as no surprise that the “original artist” behind the Obama-as-Joker poster has turned out to be a politically undeveloped, one might even say confused, young man – not a committed activist of the far right or left, neither a brooding racist nor a gleeful, Joker-loving anarchist.
The words “original artist” belong in quotes because all that 20-year-old Firas Alkhateeb of Chicago did was employ a generally available web application to “Joker-ize” a photographic portrait, then save the result to his Flickr account, where it could then be viewed by other Flickr users. His unique contribution seems to have been rather trivial: There must be other web surfers who jokerized their own little Obamas, but merely failed to save them where a poster-izer would have found them.
In a strong sense the real “artist” or “author” of the Joker poster is whoever found Alkhateeb’s image file, cleaned up the text left over from Time, added the provocative title “socialism” at the bottom, and then “wilded” the poster on city streets in Los Angeles. As we know, other members of a spontaneous virtual co-op were inspired to spread versions of the poster in other locales, turning the image from “found art” into national cultural phenomenon. This act of displaying the poster became as much an act of authorship, and richer in intentionality, than creating the piece was or could have been.
In the most important sense, however, Obama and his image-makers remain the true authors, the originators – of a social morality play in which the poster is merely an inevitable moment: They ran a campaign built among other things on persuading voters that political affirmative action could somehow also be a vote against racial politics, and that a charismatic political movement focused on a splendid individual was somehow more thoughtful than its alternatives. The Obama-Joker poster supplies the symbolically violent reply that their logic-deficit summoned forth – as an opposite, if not by itself equal, reaction to a prior symbolic injury. To whatever extent the President was elected on the basis of a phony and paradoxical, post-racial but racialist, intellectual yet messianic appeal, this fact required a subversively racial, anti-racialist response.
On the most obvious level a savage reply to Shepard Fairey’s notorious exercise in political idolatry, the “HOPE” poster, Obama-as-Joker captures the impression, the certainty, that Obama-as-idea could only have been a lie, a trick, a joke – destructive and even criminal, superheroically criminal. Joker Obama’s blood red, grotesquely widened mouth recalls candidate Obama’s grotesquely hyped oratory. The poster’s insistent lower-case reference to socialism (which, incidentally, seems to perplex Alkhateeb) points to a massive “con.” The white vs. black vs. skintone symbolism critically enhances and supports these themes, but the racial content was already provided by the Obama campaign and prior to the Obama campaign by history, genetics, and pseudo-science: The totality reduces to racist hostility only in the minds of those always ready to make the charge, or, overlapping, those unwilling or unable to acknowledge more complex messages. It’s precisely that kind of skin-deep superficiality that the poster, both as phenomenon and as object, regardless of the conscious intentions of whatever artist or set of artists, vividly and disturbingly peels back, revealing the Obama construct as a social psychological bandage or scab… that’s coming off.
Because the poster’s content, uses, and very form are in these multiple senses pre-fabricated and inevitable, it’s fitting that the non-artist artist is politically speaking a non-entity: a naif, not an activist; a kid, not a pro; an arbitrary vehicle, not a self-consciously determined crusader. Loyal to his Palestinian family, Alkhateeb approves of Obama’s foreign policy over George W. Bush’s, but questions Obama’s “substance,” claims to prefer Republicans on domestic policy, distinguishes himself from the “very, very liberal” people around him, and says he abstained last November… and would have voted for Dennis Kucinich if he could have. The stated affinity to the ultra-very, very liberal Kucinich appears to be more personal than rigorously political, less “far left” than “far out,” on the same axis, if somewhat closer to the center, as the Minnesotan who was revealed during post-election recounts to have written in “Lizard People” for senator over all too human figures like incumbent Norm Coleman or challenger Al Franken.
All over the map and without meaningful options, Alkhateeb represents the Obamanaut without an Obamessiah. That condition might make him the typical young American male of ’09 drifting directionlessly and incoherently toward an uncertain future, but the crowd of ’08, cheering “Race doesn’t matter!” to celebrate a victory in a racially charged primary campaign, only sounded more sure of themselves: To state the obvious, obvious in a way that helped explain the manic invocation of the mantra, that race did not matter could have mattered only if race did matter. It wasn’t an ideological position: It was an absurdism wrapped in frenzied distraction – a perfervidly dreamt wish destined to vanish by light of day.
That an expression is paradoxical, empty, and childish does not mean that it cannot leave a positive residue. It’s not hard to accept that the anti-racialist racialists meant well, meant to assert their negation affirmatively. Nor is it hard, for me anyway, to accept that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency may, at least on the human scale of interactions between citizens, have been a positive for race relations in the United States. Obama-as-Joker addresses the other residue, left over by political insult and felt in still-accumulating injuries, whose existence the Obamaists would rather forget or deny or minimize, but which their defensive, race card-dealing reactions confirm and reinforce, as in the first published report on the wilded posters from the not so very post-racial LA Weekly‘s not so very hopeful Steven Mikulan: “The only thing missing is a noose.”
The process of social psychological reconciliation can be as unforgiving as conventional monetary accounting, but remains infinitely unpredictable, compounding interest perversely – like a sadistic loan shark, like the Joker. That the actor who played the part in The Dark Knight died before the film was released adds even greater horror to the pallidly morbid visage – not as some crude call for assassination or lynching, Obamanaut, but as a death notice for the candidate’s seeming promise: The Obamessiah we raised up becoming a zombie clown, an immortal Beelzobama, or maybe just a Lizard People – an excuse for mournful laughter, if ever there was one, perhaps until the day or days, to our relief or regret, a human being at last emerges.