Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Shepard Fairey: Cultural vanguard or plagiarist?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 18, 2009 at 6:11 PM

When Shepard Fairey appeared on the Colbert Report Jan. 15, I honestly didn’t think very much of it. Of course, that episode aired before the recent Obama poster controversy. Fairey's interview only lasted four minutes while he sat in his chair and gave a nonchalant and bare-bones outline of his work on the Obey Campaign and the once famous, but now infamous "Hope" poster. For me, it all sounded like well-traveled terrain.

I did, however, learn two things from that interview: The man has bad posture, and he likes to smirk when he speaks of “being a criminal.” But now that he’s in trouble, what does our faithful counter-culturalist do? He turns to the courts — that is, to the Law with a capital L. Fairey’s preemptive civil action, and the very real step towards officialdom it implies, just doesn’t seem too “punk rock.”

Last Thursday’s Colbert returned to the discussion of Fairey (see video above). Colbert’s attorney Ed Colbert (his brother) debates with the former head of the Whitney Museum, David Ross. The two sides argue the Obama poster's implications, albeit in a mostly staged, comedic litigation.

David Ross' defense:

Fairey significantly manipulated the image and did so with artistic intention. The intention lends the new Obama image a degree of cultural authority (akin to Marcel Duchamp's appropriation of the Mona Lisa).

Ed Colbert, the prosecution:

The poster is an infringement, plain and simple. Adding color to a black-and-white movie and marketing it as a new film, for instance, is still a form of piracy. Fairey's color manipulations are insignificant.

Fairey was a controversial artist before the current debacle. Now, what was merely a tangle of vines, has grown into a jungle of political, legal and cultural kudzu. The questions in the AP/Fariey debate are clear, while the answers are anything but.

1. Is Shepard Fairey a plagiarist?

Although most good art references something that came before, Fairey has no qualms about hijacking imagery originated by other artists. He never credits his sources and, further, is embarrassingly ignorant about the history of his inspirations. (See the discussion in the link above re: the Nazi skull symbol.)

I'm hesitant to use the word "plagiarist," even in this case. But at some point, Fairey should have acknowledged his source, especially when money entered the equation. Which leads me to the next question...

2. Is Shepard Fairey an overrated hack?

Using art to address contemporary issues is great; I wish it would happen more often. Being a belligerent opportunist, however, is something different altogether. While I'm sure Fairey genuinely supports Barack Obama, the "Hope" poster also constituted a calculated marketing campaign — for the artist himself. Fairey still commands quite a following here in Atlanta (including the artists of Beep Beep Gallery's recent exhibition).

Fairey's decision to sue the Associated Press to me signaled the end of his career. The man's washed up, and if he does come back, he's certainly lost his counterculture credentials.

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