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Culture Monster

Image without context

August 06, 2009|David Ng

There's nothing like a controversial political caricature to get people talking, blogging and tweeting.

But when it comes to understanding those same cartoons -- as opposed to rehashing, reblogging and retweeting them -- context is key.

The New Yorker magazine's infamous cover illustration of Barack and Michelle Obama in radical drag, bumping fists in the Oval Office as an American flag burns in the fireplace, is understood to be a parody of conservative paranoia, not an attack on the first couple. But put that same image on the cover of the Weekly Standard and the illustration takes on a vastly different meaning.

In this respect, the image that has shown up in Los Angeles of President Obama in Heath Ledger Joker-face is especially disturbing because it is completely devoid of context -- literary, political or otherwise. The image seems to have emerged from nowhere and was created by no one. In some versions of the image, the word "socialism" has been appended to the poster. But as media outlets such as CNN have pointed out, the Joker (as portrayed by Ledger in "The Dark Knight") was a rabid anarchist, which doesn't jibe well with the accusation of socialism.

Like Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster of Obama, the mystery "artist" behind the Joker prank has borrowed and altered an existing media image of the president for his or her own creative ends. (It's from a cover shot of Obama featured on Time magazine.) In many ways, the Obama-as-Joker picture can be viewed as the evil twin of Fairey's "Hope" -- one is laudatory and arguably hagiographic while the other is mean-spirited and demonic. Understandably, some people have latched on to the poster's white-face significance. Is the creator saying that the president is pretending to be someone he's not? Again, it's impossible to know for sure.

At one extreme, the poster suggests that Obama is a psychopath who is completely out of control and running afoul of the law -- which he clearly is not. For a cartoon or parody to work, it must have at least one toe placed firmly in the realm of reality -- a credible starting point from which to launch into the free-for-all ether of comedy.

The most that can be said about Obama-as-Joker is that it's a prank that the Joker himself would have been proud of. It has exploded like a cultural grenade -- an act of cultural terrorism? -- and has left meaningless chaos in its wake.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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