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Culture Wars: Van Jones Explains How Obama & Progressives Occupied the Artistic 'Heart Space' ...and Won

Culture Wars: Van Jones Explains How Obama & Progressives Occupied the Artistic 'Heart Space' ...and Won

Van Jones discusses how Obama won the "heart space":

Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was historic on many levels, not least of which was based on the entire cult of personality built around him by artists working in a range of mediums from paint, to print, to music, to movies.

(Related: Everything Begins With an Idea: Beck Explains Why Americans Have the Power to 'Create')

While you might not recall a performer who goes by the unusual moniker, "Will.i.am," you may recall his tribute to then-primary presidential contender Barack Obama through a music video entitled "Yes We Can." Originally intended to be a concession "speech" at a time when Hillary Clinton was surpassing the community organizer in the polls, Will.i.am's solemn hymn became a victory song for Obama, and embedded itself indelibly in the world of art and music.

In a panel discussion delivered by Van Jones at the University of Chicago in April (the same panel discussion in which he reconfirmed his goal to build a progressive economic movement), the former green jobs "czar" noted the type of ownership the left has commanded over nearly all things artistic. From Will.i.am's ballad, to comedienne Tina Fey's uncanny yet scathing embodiment of then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, to Shepard Fairey successful revival of Soviet-style propaganda art in the now infamous Obama "Hope" poster, progressives have laid claim to what Jones calls "the heart space."

Indeed, the arts played a measurable role in catapulting Obama to the Oval Office in 2008, and it is an oft-repeated fear among conservatives in the industry, that if their true politics were to be revealed, they would surely be ostracized. So the industry portrays itself as a monolith -- one, homogenized progressive voice -- that insinuates only "cool" liberals need apply. But what if there were a platform for artists who lean conservative, or Libertarian? How might they change the course of the 2012 election, and the entire "heart space" of politics?

In his panel discussion, Jones recalled the moment when Obama seemed to be a "one-hit wonder" and his political career seemed "over."

"And he walks out there and he says, 'yes we can,'" noted Jones.

"And an artist, Will.i.am, took his concession speech, his defeated speech, and through the power of art, made it into an anthem. That's the power of art."

Below is that anthem:


"Part of what was so magical about the 2008 campaign was that it wasn't a political campaign," continued Jones. "It was a spiritual revival disguised as a political campaign. The hope, the spiritual dimension of it, the cultural dimension of it, what Obama was representing."

He likened Obama to a "shaman" and his speeches to the kind only delivered by a "slam poet" who is "able to pull from the people a higher expression of who they were and give it back." It was this ability, this "prowess" of Obama's, according to Jones, that helped transform "what it meant to be an American" and proved that the cultural aspect of his campaign was far more powerful than any policy platform or prescription he could have ever delivered.

"And you also saw these other cultural pieces, the big, big, big rallies, were kind of like tent revivals.   Got more YouTube clicks than anything up till that time. Tina Fey, a comedienne, eviscerates Sarah Palin. You can't even think about Sarah Palin without thinking about 'Saturday Night Live.' That's an a artist."

Below is that artist:


But while Will.i.am and Tina Fey's artistic renditions reached a broad audience, there was perhaps no greater transformational moment than the release of Shepard Fairey's "Hope O" poster, which, for Jones, became as ubiquitous  as the "Nike swoosh." Indeed, no other president, or presidential contender in American history had become such a cult of personality -- and he was made so by the artists who were beguiled by him.

Below are just some of Fairey's works depicting Obama as a cultural icon:

Then, in the words of Joe Cocker, "with a little help from my friends,"  Obama was elected President of the United States. Jones recalled fondly that two days before the inauguration, devotees were rewarded with the "We Are One" concert, featuring Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and others who lauded the "great uniter" through music. And to jones, it was all "amazing art."

"And then inauguration, and then after that, nothing," said Jones. "It's just subcommittees, and sausage making, and public option, and cap-and-trade in the head space, but the heart space was missing."

He added that had the Obama camp not allowed the poetic power so dominant in the culture war between left and right to slip away -- had it not been relinquished for the "whims of the subcommittee of the subcommittee" -- and had that artistic stronghold remained as influential while trying to govern as it was while trying to campaign, "we'd have had a very different outcome."

So if progressive disciple Van Jones believes Obama has abandoned the "heart space," does he believe the president will attempt to reclaim it during the 2012 election? Is there now an opportunity for conservatives, Libertarians and Independents to fill the void? Often, the cultural narrative has painted the left as champions of the disenfranchised, victors in the Civil Rights movement, upholders of human rights, and the stewards of charitable living and giving, yet the historical record dictates otherwise. Perhaps moderates and members and conservative-leaning Americans will now make greater strides in telling their story -- and history -- through the arts.

Tune into GBTV Thursday evening at 5:00 p.m. ET as Beck unveils the last component of his four part plan to reclaim America, "Create," focused on meaningful artistic contribution.


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