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For most people, the familiar poster of Barack Obama with the caption, “HOPE,” introduced them to the work of the street artist and graphic designer, Shepard Fairey. This unofficial poster, which resulted from Fairey’s grassroots efforts, provoked a well-publicized lawsuit by the Associated Press over Fairey’s use of a copyrighted photograph by Mannie Garcia as the basis for the red-white-and-blue image of Obama on his poster. This poster, the same image slightly changed for the cover of Time magazine’s person-of-the-year issue (December 29, 2008), as well as Obama’s letter of February 22, 2008, thanking Fairey for his support, were included in a fascinating exhibition organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston.
This comprehensive show offered an opportunity to see a survey of Fairey’s work, and it demonstrated that he is far more complicated than recent mainstream media reports would propose. Both the show and its huge book-length catalogue raised a number of complex issues about art as propaganda, advertising, and merchandising, as well as fueled a lively debate about appropriation, credit, copyright, street art, and political activism. Street art was defined by the ICA in its flyer as, “artwork done in the streets, illegally, free of rules, and that doesn’t qualify as graffiti because it doesn’t revolve around tagging or text-based subject matter. It can take the simple form of posters or stickers.” Fairey boasts of having been arrested for making and displaying his street art, but insists that if street art inspires his audience to question what they see and to communicate, then his arrests have stood for something significant.
The show opened with a room of poster-like images centered on the theme of propaganda and continued with a room devoted to images of war and peace. Subsequent thematic rooms included pictures for the music industry, portraiture, and “Hierarchies of Power,” culminating in a huge space that urged viewers to “Question Everything.” In the latter space was Fairey’s Obey Middle East Mural from 2009 containing a peace sign with Islamic designs made with henna. In this same room, the portraits on more than ninety posters included Saddam Hussein; the former governor of Georgia and one-time segregationist, Lester Maddox; and Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fairey has a deft eye for picking out iconographic images.
The ICA’s catalogue identifies Fairey as, “one of the most influential street artists of our time.” He is indeed known for guerrilla art tactics, his willingness to put up his posters and stickers in places that are often illegal. In contrast to these illicit venues for Fairey’s art, the ICA’s installation was tame, though well-organized and engaging. One was immediately drawn to his imagery, some of which—to an art historian’s eye— involve very familiar appropriations. These comprise homages to Andy Warhol, from his dance-step diagram to his portrait of Marilyn Monroe, or to Roy Lichtenstein, using his hallmark appropriation of Ben-day dots from the printing of comic books. Other Fairey images call to mind political posters; but while they retain the snappy graphic power, they have been stripped of their original context.
Fairey had a great deal to do with the catalogue and its design. In fact, the catalogue merely expands upon a book that he first published in 2006. It tells the story of how beginning as a skateboarder and punk rock fan, he developed a sharp eye attuned to powerful graphic design. In Fairey’s own words—including in his 1990 manifesto, in his answers to an interview with the show’s curator and in an earlier interview, in his extensive captions, and in his own essays, some reprinted from earlier publications—we learn how he thinks and works. Citing Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological method, Fairey argues that the aim of the meaningless “Andre the Giant” sticker that he first used in 1989 at the age of only nineteen was to provoke curiosity and get people to inquire about the sticker and its connection to what was all around them. Though he used this sticker to launch his career in graphic design, he claims he had no idea that he was doing so at the time.
Fairey describes his momentous discovery of copyright law as a sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design. He realized that he could use found imagery, photocopy it, and even paint on it. He believed that since he manipulated and re-contexualized what he found, the result was a new and valid artwork. His freedom to utilize work by others has provoked some to claim that he has stolen from other artists without acknowledging his sources. The ICA preferred the now familiar term “appropriate,” which it defined in the show’s flyer as, “to manipulate an existing method/medium/object to create new meaning. Appropriation should not be understood simply as plagiarism (taking what someone else has created) but as a complex negotiation between the self and the larger culture, an absorption and transformation of shared resources into the raw materials of one’s own expression.”
In fact, in the catalogue Fairey does acknowledge his debt to such notables as Alberto Korda, the photographer who took the famous image of Che Guevara in 1960; Barbara Kruger for her style, but not her content; Roy Lichtenstein; and Andy Warhol. Yet his acknowledgments are in the catalogue’s captions and texts, not on the images themselves, which arguably might have ruined their impact. At the same time, the vast majority of the audience that sees his work reads neither his catalogue nor his earlier essays. In a 2004 essay reprinted in the catalogue, Fairey asks: “Does the Latin community own Che? Does the Black community own Angela Davis? . . . My point is that someone or something’s influence can often cross cultural boundaries and grow beyond the control of groups who would like to keep this person or thing as a symbol solely of their cause or culture.” He asserts the need to look into and take apart every image.
The exhibition did not present oppositional views to Fairey’s work, but, then, no museum can ever be counted on to reveal the controversies surrounding an artist it decides to show. Instead it is safe to assume that the museum is acting as a cheerleader, putting its seal of approval on an artist brought into its orbit. For many, however, Fairey’s appropriations have become more problematic because after recycling and manipulating without acknowledgment the work of anonymous artists, works in the public domain, or even the copyrighted work of lesser-known artists, he has dared to copyright and market these now-altered images as his own. Fairey has a keen understanding of the world of marketing and commercial art, and he has not hesitated to take full advantage.
At the same time, Fairey also promotes those he claims to believe in: from Obama to Noam Chomsky and Bob Marley. Fairey has even reproduced a 2008 needlepoint sent to him by Subcomandante Marcos. Fairey produced posters against the war in Iraq and against injustices during the last Bush administration. He created an image of “Uncle Scam” in 2007, which stressed the death of “human rights, democracy, peace, justice, privacy, and civil liberty” by placing each of these values on a human skull all held by an Uncle Sam figure. Other Fairey posters raise awareness of U.S. dependency on foreign oil and its effect on foreign policy. Fairey’s critics, however, refer to his “false-front leftism,” to his lack of ethics in failing to credit his sources, and to his use of parody “as an excuse to steal images.” (Samples can be found at http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm and http://www.myartspace.com/blog/2008/09/obamas-obedient-artist-is-shepard.html .)
Whether Fairey intrigues or aggravates his viewers, what is clear is that his work speaks to present conditions. It raises significant questions and reflects important issues, earning him a place in the history of graphic design and street art. The ICA show was an excellent way to encounter Fairey’s ambitious program and the scope of his interests.
Distinguished Professor, The Graduate Center and Baruch College, City University of New York
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