Faux-Rockwellism

What strikes me in Erwin Olaf's "Ice Cream Parlor" photograph, featured on the cover of Fabricating the Absolute Fake, is not only the return to an innocent America, but also its artificiality or fakeness, which art critic Ken Johnson aptly identified as "faux-Rockwellism," although, unlike Johnson, I would not call it "satiric" but rather a form of pastiche. Erwin Olaf "borrows" from Norman Rockwell by photographing in the same realist style as Rockwell's paintings, bordering on kitsch, including the use of almost artificial pastel coloring, thereby mimicking the painter's trademark depiction of an idealistic America as well as bringing its artificiality to the foreground. By identifying the photograph's fakeness, I am not making a negative value judgment, but instead I recognize how Olaf successfully taps into the "artificial" character of American commercial pop culture, based on clichéd genre conventions, imitation, and continously recycled images which tend to be viewed, particularly by Europeans, as signs of fakeness. Identifying the fakeness of American commercial pop culture is not an act of dismissal but rather the recognition of one of its most attractive and seductive characteristics.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, pp. 11-12) (photograph by Erwin Olaf)

Myth Today

The 1955 Paris Match cover used by Roland Barthes immediately comes to mind when looking at the two 2003 magazine covers featuring the same picture of Jessica Lynch, the American soldier who was heroically rescued by the American Special Forces after being captured by the Iraqi army. Both Newsweek (14 April 2003) and People magazine (21 April 2003) use an undated army picture of Lynch in uniform in front of the American flag, an image which has become iconic by now, showing her face in medium close-up, smiling directly into the camera. More than just a name, Jessica Lynch has become an adventurous tale. As the headline of the People magazine cover reads: "POW Jessica Lynch - Her Incredible Story: An inside account of the young soldier's midnight rescue, her joyful family reunion, and the long road home." The cover of Newsweek uses fewer words to achieve a similar result by presenting the headline "Saving Private Lynch," an obvious reference to the Hollywood blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. Thus, in stark contrast to the anonymous soldier on the 1955 cover of Paris Match, the American soldier on the 2003 covers of Newsweek and People magazine is not only personalized but also transformed into a highly dramatized "true" story, a dramatization which has been taken a step further by the NBC television movie Saving Jessica Lynch. Through her passive heroism by being both a brave soldier and an innocent victim, Jessica Lynch not only becomes the "face" of the second Gulf War, she also embodies un uncontested positive justification of the American military presence in Iraq.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, p. 71)

Obama and Pepsi

Barack Obama's 2008 campaign message has been turned - literally - into a 2009 Pepsi commercial. Using the 1973 Pointer Sisters song "Yes We Can Can" as soundtrack, the Pepsi commercial copies the design of the Obama campaign, including its logo, appropriates the slogans "Yes We Can!" and "Hope," and ends with the message "Every generation refreshes the world: now it's your turn." Rather than just a cheap mimicking, however, the Pepsi commercial reveals how much of the Obama image itself is based on the logic of advertising: Obama as "the choice of a new generation," selling his message of hope and change to the world. Like Michael Jackson, Obama is part of a globally mediated yet American celebrity culture in which pop, politics, and advertising merge, a pop utopia that envisions a world in which cultural, racial, and national boundaries have been overcome. Two distintive ways in which Jackson and Obama function similarly can be distinguished. First, as African-American celebrities, they reconfirm the ideology of the American Dream. Second, as global liquid celebrities, they enable "fans" around the world to feel connected to an overarching sense of inclusiveness and belonging. In both cases, Michael Jackson and Barack Obama embody a compelling promise that might be truly inspiring and empowering, yet remains difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill.

(from my book Fabricating the Absolute Fake, pp. 166-167)

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