To the Editors:
Brian Gallagher’s Shepard Fairey piece is timely and relevant. When Fairey was arrested in Boston the other day, the first reaction of some people I talked with about it was that his arrest was a stunt Fairey somehow engineered to generate publicity for his career-retrospective show at the ICA in that art-unfriendly city. It wasn’t, but thinking that shows how people don’t trust Fairey’s motives.
Certainly his arrest adds to his credibility as a street artist engaged in a radical art practice, as does the countersuit Fairey has filed against the Associated Press regarding his Obama “HOPE” poster. The issues of fair use and bogus claims of copyright infringement are important ones we should confront. Gallagher points out that so much of Fairey’s work owes its inspiration to the work of the Russian constructivists and to images of various political figures seen in propaganda posters. But there is a more basic source for Fairey’s art, at once more obvious and more hidden: John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi movie They Live.
It’s the film Gallagher should have mentioned instead of Transporter 3. In They Live, wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper plays an out-of-work construction worker who stumbles on a pair of sunglasses that, when worn, reveal to the wearer the world as it really is: a collection of black-on-white signs, on billboards and wherever text appears, featuring slogans like “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “WATCH TV.” On paper money, the slogan reads, “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” A race of aliens secretly controls everything, and the sunglasses allow the wearer to see them as they are, too: as metal-faced monsters in bad toupees.
As an art student at RISD, Fairey no doubt learned that it’s a good idea to reveal some of your sources of appropriation or inspiration or whatever fair use dictates we call it. He probably also learned that it’s not a good idea to reveal them all. His borrowings from They Live are obvious and not uncommented on, but as far as I know no serious critic of his work has bothered to watch the Carpenter film in order to better understand Fairey’s work—or call him on his shit.
They Live stars a wrestler, not Andre the Giant but Roddy Piper, confronting giant “OBEY” signs he’s trying to take down to save his society. It’s a radical genre film, a rare instance—maybe the last—of something made in Hollywood at that level of production that is genuinely working class. It is ironic that this source remains unacknowledged in discussions about this artist who claims to be engaged in the same kind of truth-telling as the film he was inspired by, or borrowed from, or ripped off.