A Resurrected Aesthetic: Obama’s “Art Works” Posters and the New Deal of 2012

Amidst the political rallying that has really only just began to rear its loud and often noxious head, I was excited to see a side of Obama’s campaign drawing on artists and an art history that I am especially drawn to.

Rebuilding America, Julie, Seattle WA

In October of 2011, the Obama campaign began seeking artist submissions for a poster competition to visually support and articulate President Obama’s American Jobs Act.  The guidelines detailed in the “Creative Brief” encouraged artists to use a handful of provided mottos and choose a “broad theme, or focus on a specific aspect: why we've got to rebuild and modernize our roads and bridges, help veterans find work once they've returned home from service, support the small businesses that are the engine of our economy, make sure teachers can stay in their classrooms, and so on.” - Ellen C. Caldwell, LA Contributor

I was drawn to this for a number of reasons.  First, I consider myself someone who studies “visual culture” as much as art history.  What does this really mean?  I consider all artistic expression around me worthy of study, as much as I do the very limited and refined fine art.

An example of the kind of alcohol advertisements I looked at for my MA: “There is Happiness in Heineken” Heineken Beer advertisement in The Sunday Mirror, 11 September 1955.

As a graduate student, I studied the social and economic history of alcohol advertisements in Ghana, so I am used to having to defend my choice of subject analysis.  Though more and more, this is becoming a more widely accepted practice in art history, as indicated by the plethora of universities that have widened the scope of their Art History Departments by changing the name to Visual Studies or Visual Culture Departments. (For a debate and history about the distinction of visual culture versus art history, there are a variety of books and articles including Matthew Rampley’s edited anthology Another Turn in the Visual Culture Debate: Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, Concepts, Contexts and Margaret Dikovitskaya’s Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn.)  So, as a visual culture enthusiast, I loved to see the campaign floor open to artistic interpretation and I really loved seeing the poster as the medium.

Work for Our Future, Steve, Boulder, CO

Second, it was exciting seeing the art that was submitted.  And the style and subjects submitted drew on a rich visual past: that of the Works Projects Administration’s aesthetic and visual vocabulary. Maybe this was an obvious jump, maybe not, but I have truly enjoyed seeing the poster submissions.

Google image search for “Works Projects Administration posters”

In 1935, amidst the Great Depression, Harry Hopkins began the WPA as a relief measure and branch of the New Deal agency under the order of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The focus: construction of public roads and buildings as well as a shifted focus to the visual, theater, and literary arts.  With a quick Google image search for the posters created for and around the WPA, you can already begin to see the similarity.  For example, it is hard to avoid thinking about some of San Francisco’s WPA murals, upon viewing Steve’s “Work for our Future” poster submission.

Below are some of the winners and finalists whom I found to be symbiotic with if not merely simpatico to the WPA posters of another time and generation.

American Job Acts, Amanda, Philadelphia, PA

Rebuilding America, Jeff, Tulsa, OK

More Jobs for Veterans, Edgar, El Paso, TX

Rebuild Main Street, Estelle, Fairhope, AL

Out-Build, Out-Educate, Out-Innovate, Terry, Baldwin Park, CA


Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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