WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign recently launched a poster contest, inviting artists from across the country to submit designs in support of the president's $447 billion jobs plan and re-election. Although three winners will be given framed copies of their artworks signed by the president, artists who apply will not be paid for their labor, and they must relinquish the rights to their own work upon submission, according to the contest website.
Many professional designers and illustrators -- a group not exactly known for bashing liberals and casting Republican votes -- say they find the contest detrimental to their industry. They argue that such competitions, entered by artists "on speculation" in hopes of gaining exposure, are helping to depress wages in an already tough job market, even when the artists know upfront what they're getting into. Several told HuffPost they find it ironic that the posters are meant to convey a brighter economic future.
Syndicated cartoonist Matt Bors said the contest represents "the opposite of jobs."
"Everyone's time is wasted except for the winner, and they're not even compensated," said Bors, whose work has appeared in The Nation and The Village Voice, among other outlets. "It brings down rates for everybody. Just imagine this scenario with any other profession. You don't have contests with your plumber."
The recent proliferation of design contests and "on spec" design work has spawned a good deal of bitterness among artists who are trying to make a living. Websites such as AntiSpec.com and No-Spec.com now alert artists and the public to the issues with spec work, while the #nospec hashtag on Twitter reveals a steady stream of angry anecdotes. This week the hashtag has been overtaken with links to the Obama poster contest.
Many artists also feel that design contests, including Obama's, can take advantage of young artists eager to make a name for themselves. And so some are asking: Is there a difference between doing spec work for a corporate entity and doing it for a politician you believe in?
Designer Jessica Hische was so concerned about the growth of spec work that she built an online flow chart to navigate the ethical complexities. Hische, who splits her time between San Francisco and Brooklyn, told HuffPost by email that the Obama poster contest is "definitely ruffling a few feathers" among professional designers. Like others, she finds it upsetting that the campaign will own the rights to the work, precluding the artist from ever selling it. She believes that the artists should share in any profits and that they should retain rights to the images while licensing use to the campaign.
"I believe their intentions were good, but I don't support what they are doing," Hische said. "The prizes offered are a bit insulting, and I do think it's hilarious and ironic that a contest to help raise awareness about unemployment doesn't do its own part to help designers get compensation."
When asked about the Obama design contest, Mark Collins, the U.K.-based artist who founded AntiSpec.com, directed HuffPost to a blog post on his website, in which he panned the campaign for not hiring designers: "Obama's use of spec work here sends a clear message to businesses everywhere that harvesting potentially 1,000s of free design hours is acceptable to promote your business/cause. It isn't. Worse still it reinforces spec work in the minds of young designers."
The Obama campaign wouldn't be the first entity to feel the backlash over design contests. The Huffington Post recently carried out a contest in which readers were invited to submit designs for a new Twitter icon for the site's politics page. The response from many artists was less than warm, with AntiSpec.com launching a campaign against the contest. In a statement, AOL Huffington Post Media Group noted that it employs a team of 30 in-house designers and that the contest was "in no way an attempt to solicit unpaid design services."
Many editors and reporters at HuffPost were unaware of how sensitive an issue these contests were among designers. The Obama campaign may be equally unaware; it did not respond to a request for comment. According to the contest website, posters with the winning images will be sold in an online campaign store.
Of course, this president surely understands, perhaps better than most, the power of an arresting political poster. The "HOPE" design created by artist Shepard Fairey -- and emblazoned on countless posters and other objects during the 2008 campaign -- already ranks among the most iconic images in American political history, having played an obvious yet incalculable role in Obama winning the White House. Obama's 2012 campaign is clearly hoping to harness a bit of that poster magic again.
In an email, Fairey told HuffPost that he's disappointed when he considers the poster contest, although not for the same reasons as the anti-spec crowd. He believes that artists should distinguish between lending their art to political causes, as in the poster contest, and participating in commercial spec work.
Fairey said he didn't ask to be compensated for the HOPE design because, "In my mind, Obama's election and the progress that hypothetically would yield was the reward." That reward, he implies, hasn't arrived yet.
"It is great that the Obama campaign recognizes the impact and value of grassroots art activism," he went on. "The difference is that a lot of artists now feel let down by Obama. I don't think they want money for their designs, but the concepts of their designs to be followed through by Obama and his administration."
In short, it doesn't sound as if Fairey will be entering the Obama poster contest.
"Now that we are in a terrible economy," he added, "maybe Obama should do what FDR did with the WPA program and put artists and designers to work, rather than just asking for help with his campaign art."
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