Monday, September 8, 2008

Potentially Incendiary Aquatic Afterthoughts

As a follow up to the Obama-in-Goggles controversy [see previous post], Chip Sheean posted on the USMS discussion forum:
Wow. I had no idea that this shirt would create such a stir. Being the creator and designer of the Obama Swim t-shirt I can only say that there are a lot of people getting quite heated about something so trivial.

I am a creative director in a large agency in Los Angeles and have been designing the Big Shoulders shirts for over 10 years. Each year we try to come up with something unique, fun and different. I have been a swimmer for 40 of my 45 years and can think of nothing else that brings so much to the body and spirit. I LIVE it and LOVE it. While brainstorming for this years shirt - I spotted a poster created by a popular local street artist Shepard Fariey.
Shepard has made a career of taking that which is familiar and giving it a clever twist. He got his start from creating an iconic image that was a parody of the "Big Brother is Watching" poster mentioned in a book by George Orwell's "1984".

This was in no way an endorsement or a clever way to push Barack Obama but, rather push the idea taking taking the HOPE from the ubiquitous Obama poster and place the word SWIM. The fact that he is a Chicago icon made it even better. Seriously - If everyone jumped into the pool and did some laps I think the world would be a better place.

Everyday, I am challenged to create something new and engaging. The graphic is nothing more than an Andy Warhol soup can or Bicycle Wheel by Duchamp. Hell, if the poster had McCain or Mickey Mouse I would have used them. The big idea is to inject a bit of levity and thought to promote a great thing - SWIMMING!!!! Yeah Swimming - yahooo!!! (splash!)

So, if you were offended and feel that this is a sneaky trick, sorry. And if you hate the shirt - great! Sell it on Ebay or line your birdcage with it. I don't care. Just get out there and get some laps in and have some fun!

I am already working on next years shirt which will feature a unicorn with cap and swim goggles leaping over a rainbow and splashing his little hooves in gumdrops all set against Chicago's majestic skyline at sunset. Yikes! I only hope that I don't hear from PETA...

nuff said. Peace.

Three thoughts:

1) This is a perfect example of the intentionalist fallacy: I think I am doing X therefore I am doing X. While the Warholian reference may have been prominent in Chip Sheean's mind, his viewers, mostly operating without that art historical framework [at least in any active interpretive way], saw something different. As in: an endorsement. Which, on reflection, is not the most ridiculous thing to surmise from the image. Lesson of the day: Irony is a currency of the like-minded. Even armed with his famous valise, Marcel Duchamp may not travel to all districts, or do so with equal intelligibility.

2) Tangent warning! I know (in several dimensions) what it is like to operate from a minority perspective in a mostly clueless majority environment. If you're not careful, you can find your whole system running on bile and its resentment-derived byproducts. That said, the cries of persecution emanating from the right side of our spectrum [speaking generally] are not extremely credible at this late date. The alleged "oppressed" have been calling the shots while exaggerating exquisitely refined fabricated slights on a professional level for far too long to stay credible. A resultant "Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf" effect may now be in play, producing a pervasive and potentially unattractive irritability in situations like these. I plead guilty. I am especially sick of wounded faith-based sensibilities, particularly having plead such cases among my more skeptical friends and colleagues for the better part of the last two decades. Shut up already. Accept the fact that we live in a modern, secular, scientifically-oriented society. If you want to define yourselves in opposition to that reality, fine. Great. But don't seek to run the government, and lose the special pleading. Be crazy in the fundamentally crazy aspect of all sound [because kooky & contradictory] religion.

3) It is impossible to avoid a final observation: how long has it been since "negroes" have even been allowed in the public pool [or given free access to the formerly "white" side of the pool, not to mention the exclusion from private pools by a systematic application of graciously expressed but nonetheless apartheid social codes]? The subtext is unavoidable. Is it not possible, even likely, that some inchoate discomfort expresses itself in response to the image of the goggled African-American [pace, Cullen Jones]? How shall we process the fact that the offended parties on the USMS discussion forum self-identify as persons living in Georgia and Indiana, both reliably "red" states for many years? [Yes, this rhetorical question surmises that "the Southern Strategy" of the GOP remains in play, even though it has become increasingly awkward to acknowledge on the national level.]

Does my question imply racism on the part of the offended parties? Not in a specific, biographical accusational way: certainly not. But statistically, and more broadly, atmospherically speaking, we can posit the likelihood that racist or at a minimum racialist notions are more freely expressed and thus mutually reinforced in strongly "red" states than "blue"ones, though there are significant limits to the usefulness of such statements.

Despite all the qualifiers, it is striking that no such sentiments have been expressed by, say, swimmers from Massachusetts.

Commenters, have at it.

Image: David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967.

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