By Ray LeMoine
CORRECTION: The last sentence should read, “This is bad advertising not public, political art.”
Many folks have used Obama and the 2008 election to help their own careers. Rage Against the Machine may be the best example. Here’s a band signed to Sony Records, part of one of the biggest corporations in the world, showing up at the RNC to play a $60 a ticket show at the Target Center and getting dubbed anarchists by the New York Times.
But worse than RATM, who’ve been pulling this pseudo-rebellion for a decade, is Shepard Fairey, the corporate designer cum self-proclaimed “Michael Jordan of street art.” In a long feature in Radar, we see a man in love with himself but without a clue as to how contradictory he is. And Radar doesn’t even seem to notice. Here’s some hyperbolic copy:
Had you approached Frank Shepard Fairey 20 years ago, when he was still a fledgling art student at RISD, and told him he’d become the most important American political artist in at least a half-century—well, he probably would have laughed right in your face.
Really, a guy who makes posters and sells clothes? And what truly political artists would be so commercial and corporate?
Fairey’s seven-year-old clothing company, Obey, is distributed through hundreds of stores like Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. He directs an Echo Park–based design firm, Subliminal Projects, which creates everything from cover art for Led Zeppelin, Billy Idol, and the Smashing Pumpkins to Dewar’s and Pepsi ads. Limited editions of his left-leaning propaganda street posters—with imagery like an American eagle perched atop a gas pump surrounded by the edict “Operation Oil Freedom,” or two loving parents cuddling a bomb flanked by “More Military, Less Skool,” both of which he pasted above the corner of Wilshire and Rampart Boulevards earlier this afternoon—sell out to so-called “eBay vultures” so fast he’s had to strictly regulate online sales. And in February, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art will host a 20-year retrospective of his gallery work, which now fetches upwards of $100,000 a piece.
This sounds less like art than branding and self-promoting. As for his appropriated Obama image, Fairey says:
“I think it was an Associated Press photo, but I’m not sure,” Fairey says. “My whole thing has always been don’t ask permission, just do it. I’ve got a look I want to achieve, the way the lighting falls on the face, and it feels like he’s a leader.”
Reading the above, one would be shocked to learn the story of a recent day in Denver, when I visited the Hope Gallery, a DNC installation sponsored by MoveOn.org. I showed up at this very public show, sponsored by a public PAC, on assignment from public television.
“No filming,” I was told by an angry, ugly Jewish midget. “The rights to these are images are held by Shepard’s sister and her only!”
“But this is public art displayed in a public space—supposedly part of a larger public event—and I’m with public television,” I said.
“No! Get out now!”
At this point I lost it, but that’s not important. Here’s Radar on the DNC event:
“…the big news of getting a mural space in Denver during the DNC, where he will also host the Manifest Hope Gallery with MoveOn.org, featuring the Obama-inspired work of 60 other renowned street and pop artists, like Mel Kadel, Date Farmers, and Evan Hecox. “They recognize the power that this type of event—art, culture—has on a younger voter,” says Fairey, who was arrested on the first day of the DNC while bombing an alleyway with a documentary film crew in tow.
Huh? Your own doco crew, Shep? So you want to create public work but control public access to it? Sounds fascist. You take an AP photo, steal it without buying the rights, then make a lot of money off it, increasing your brand’s value, but deny the public access to your work?
It’s important to understand Fairey’s duplicity. By appropriating images and then putting them up as public art, Fairey is committing an illegal, subversive political act. But by selling the images and attempting to control who uses them, Fairey subverts his action. What’s democratic about public art that the public can’t even share? This is advertising not art.