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Obama, Aesthetics, and the Way Forward

Guest post by Aric Mayer.

Let me just come out and say it. Barack Obama’s landslide victory on Tuesday is the greatest moment in politics for my generation. This is the fifth presidential election that I have voted in, and it is the first where I feel as though the country is being moved by the collective will of its younger citizens. As an eyewitness to many of America’s great domestic tragedies over the past eight years, this election affects me deeply and I can’t write outside of the relief and hope that it brings.

With that said, all is not champagne corks and confetti.

I want to draw your attention to two images by Alan Chin taken in Chicago at the Grant Park celebration where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech as president elect.

Here the viewer stands alone while looking out over empty railroad tracks at Grant Park with the Chicago skyline spreading across the horizon. In the distant center, the letters USA are shining off of one of its buildings. As a symbol, a city represents the best of human cooperation and achievement. There is promise ahead. And it is going to take real work to get there.

In his acceptance speech Obama looked tired and sometimes grim. He knows what is ahead. Obama has often quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, the moral philosopher who wrote about the destructive nature of power and how it is sometimes necessary to use it even as it corrupts you. Obama inherits two lengthy and costly wars, the near bankruptcy of our own domestic policies, an American economy in free fall and a world economy that appears to be teetering on the edge of the unknown. But as dark as this may seem, the alternative was even darker. John McCain’s last efforts at character assassination and fear mongering left him in the isolated position of having nothing to win but a completely fractured constituency.

The election on Tuesday was won in part through the unprecedented turnout of minority and young voters. It ultimately came down to a contest between the nuanced, hopeful and inclusive pluralism of Barack Obama and the entrenched fears of a segment of conservative white working and middle class voters that was the final platform of John McCain’s candidacy. In contrast to the fear being spread by the McCain campaign, Obama focused on statesmanship, policy and the choice of pragmatism over idealism in forming a new government in America. In a theatrical paradox, while drawing huge crowds Obama frequently played down the drama to the extent that newspaper editorials began to call him boring.

What was happening though was not boring at all, but was and is a ground shift towards pluralism, nuance and complexity with aesthetic consequences. As Obama’s campaign traced its arc from the Democratic Convention until Tuesday night, he clarified his message by moving away from the inflammatory and the incredible and towards the gritty and the pragmatic. To live in a multidimensional society we must recognize that while our own positions are uniquely ours, they do not make up the entire country. The post baby boomers who had such a powerful impact on this election have been accused of self absorption and narcissism, frequently by baby boomers themselves. But there are advantages to self absorption within context, for it reveals the limits of self. It helps to know oneself in order to make room for one who is unlike you. At the heart of this is an acceptance of the “other” and a grass roots rejection of fundamentalist divisions along ethnic and racial lines. What is emerging in America is a more truly plural constituency. At the same time, the depiction of the American Dream as a place and an experience where you can have it all is being replaced by pictures of collapsing markets and a very uncertain economic future. The Great Depression and the New Deal brought us documentary realism. It remains to be seen what will emerge for us out of the current growing crises.

In the second image, Obama is surrounded by waving American flags. It is a triumphant moment, framed by reminders of danger. The bullet proof glass is already in place. In the back left the letters USA appear on an electronic ticker, the same lettering that streams up to the minute data of the market turmoil. There is a balance of hope and realism.

We need to cultivate this balance. Obama wrote it into his speech. While warning us of the difficulties ahead, he still took the time to remind us that there will be children and a new puppy in the White House. A new generation in American politics begins.

A complete slideshow of Alan Chin’s images from Grant Park on November 4 is available at BAGnewsNotes.


Obama, Aesthetics, and the Way Forward


3 Responses

  1. Curtis says

    Obama’s humility, the tone he struck about the work we have ahead, was in a word “presidential.” to Aric’s point, if we are going to transition from the old polarities of democrat v. republican and the cold war, it has to start somewhere. There were times when I was angry that Obama was not more fiery, but now I understand that he was beginning that transition by expemplifying it.

  2. Lynda says

    The only change that I have seen so far is Mr. Obama’s change of mind and that is the change you can count on!
    The first thing that he does when he wins the election is to nominate Rahm Emanuel, a Washington Insider!
    Change you say. I say business as usual in Washington!
    More than 3 million Americans gave him a chance to be President without having the necessary experience. There are many young Americans (65%) who supported him and who are intelligent, educated, some innovators and true visionaries and are not Washington insiders.
    I do not want to hear any more of his preaching that time is over! I do not care who is the love of his life. We all have those and some fortunate people have more that one. I do not care about the dog that his kids can have, he should discuss that with his children not the world. He should stop making this a celebrity white house, putting people off the real problems. His personal life is your own, and I would like him to keep it that way and get on with the business of running a country as he has no experience and a lot of work to do!

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