In a move that surprised exactly no one, Time magazine recently chose for its “Person of the Year” Barack Obama. Likely sensing that bust-size photos of Obama gazing hopefully into an indeterminate distance were just about kaput as aesthetic capital, the Time editors decided to go the cool route. Richard Stengel wrote: “Our cover portrait is by the street artist Shepard Fairey, whose roots are in the skateboarding world and whose early poster of then Senator Obama became the great populist image of the campaign. With this cover, Fairey has now created a new iconic image of the President-elect—a rich, multilayered poster that echoes but then expands on his original.” The cover of Time represents a sort of closing of the circle for Fairey, whose ubiquitous Obama poster, adorned with the word “Hope,” shot his style to new heights of recognizability, while galvanizing a particular image and notion of the candidate in the American consciousness. It’s not hard to see that in this partnership each side is conferred abstract benefits. Time gets the “edgy” aesthetic value of Fairey’s work, and Fairey gets the validation and exposure provided by Time‘s circulation. (In other words, the cover is the Audi A8 from Transporter 3.)
Politically speaking, the image is an interesting example of what passes for radicalism today. The poster and magazine cover situate Obama in a pictorial milieu traditionally associated with truly radical figures—Subcomandante Marcos, Lenin, Angela Davis, Mao—whose images Fairey has already appropriated for his work. And while Obama certainly does represent a measure of change, and a watershed for the office of the Presidency, he’s hardly a radical (despite the McCain campaign’s soft-headed insinuations regarding his “Marxism”). Whether due to his personal inclinations, the necessity of the times, or the country’s overall rightward shift since World War II, Obama is no more progressive than, say, George McGovern—that is, a standard, unreconstructed liberal. Yet here we see him depicted in much the same manner Fairey has depicted Bobby Seale. It is radicalism, or rather the appearance of it, that is Shepard Fairey’s stock in trade.
Fairey’s first successful campaign, begun while an undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), consisted of stickers bearing the image of Andre the Giant, which were eventually paired with the simple dictum “Obey!” His early explanation of the project’s intellectual footing invoked, albeit in a glancing way, Heidegger, who, in Fairey’s perfunctory read, “describes Phenomenology as ‘the process of letting things manifest themselves.’” Many art students have, whether by impulse or departmental necessity, concocted dubious theoretical justifications for projects they just thought looked cool, but Fairey has clung to such justifications for over two decades now. In a sense, his project has not changed either. The specific images he trades upon have changed, and the stickers have become larger posters, but the street art Fairey started with as a teenager is essentially what he is doing now.
Fairey’s work has come under a great deal of criticism, most of which has singled out his lack of originality. At best, they say, Fairey is simply derivative—at worst he steals outright the images of more politically serious predecessors. And these accusations are not unfounded. Fairey’s work is largely stolen from cultures and artists who faced struggles more dire, and with consequences far more threatening than a few nights in county lock-up (experiences Fairey often trades on when shoring up cred). Many of his posters are near replicas, sometimes with a few embellishments, of earlier political imagery. The ones that are not straight ripoffs are so clearly mimicking a style—e.g., of Soviet Constructivism—as to be parodic. And recently, the Associated Press accused Fairey of copyright infringement, as it owns the photo on which the “Hope” poster was based.
However, artistic theft alone is not damning. There are many artists who similarly use extant imagery, relying on the concept behind the manner in which they are used to give the artwork value. Richard Prince, for instance, has produced photographs of advertising photography and displayed them as art. In such instances, when the artist explicitly borrows his aesthetic, the value of the work must rest in the concept. But whereas Prince is asking viewers to consider the artistic value of an ad recontextualized, Fairey is doing something else, though it also involves advertising, as we’ll see.
Of course, the allegation of selling out is an old one in the world of art and street culture. Fairey addressed the issued in an “essay” called “Absoloot Sponsorship,” where he writes, “The other day I was flipping through a ‘lifestyle’ magazine when an Absolut Vodka ad caught my eye. This particular ad was basically a verbatim reproduction of the classic Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols cover, with the sole modification to the original Jamie Reid art being a cut-paper-style Absolut bottle silhouette behind the Sex Pistols type.…The type at the bottom of the page read ‘Absolut Pistols’ in the typestyle they have branded for years.” He’s certainly in familiar territory here, musing further, “Would I have looked at the Pistols differently if their Anarchy tour had been the Absolut Anarchy tour?” One would think the answer would be a resounding, “Fuck yes, that missing ‘e’ makes all the difference!” But Fairey is trying to justify himself, so, the answer comes: “Maybe not, because the Pistols were the originators of the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, but who knows?” This is not only tendentious but wrong. “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” refers to the Johnny Rotten’s last words at the final Sex Pistols show, when he asked the crowd, “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Fairey seems to think that it refers to all the times the Pistols took money from record companies and failed to produce albums in return. It serves Fairey’s justification more handily to think that the Pistols were the ones on the take, and the corporate record companies the dupes in the setup, but even Johnny Rotten knew that wasn’t the case, and he didn’t go to no RISD.
With this justification firmly in hand, Fairey has done design work for Honda, Pepsi, Hasbro, and Netscape, among others. But no object sums up Fairey’s untenable relationship with commerce better than his most recent project with Saks Fifth Avenue. With the country sinking into a deep recession, Saks decided that the best way to stay relevant was to “go Socialist,” courtesy of Shepard Fairey’s design studio. According to the New York Times, the store’s new shopping bags will have the Saks slogan, “Want It!”, printed in lettering similar to the graphic designs of Alexander Rodchenko, the Russian Constructivist artist. The images, largely realized by Cleon Peterson of Studio Number One, Mr. Fairey’s design company in Los Angeles, depict the season’s trends in black-and-white images with geometric slashes of red, some of them shown on models posing as if they were champions of workers’ rights.
An ad for a slouchy bag, for example, tells shoppers to “Arm Yourself,” while a style of relaxed, cropped shorts are described as “Brave Pants.” Fairey has become the handmaiden not only for a store that sells luxury goods, but his work adorns the very receptacles in which the luxury goods will be carried home, wrapped up with a neat little bow of materialistic sloganeering. Thus, Fairey’s comfortable tautology: “Artists: give the companies credit for taking risks. Companies: give the artists money for taking risks. Everybody wins in this equation.” If everybody wins, why doesn’t Fairey include any of his corporate work in his coffee table book, Supply and Demand? And why do I feel queasy?
Mind, in terms of profit, Fairey is doing just fine. Once his work became recognizable enough to be sought after as an accessory, he took to the definitive quick-money device of the aughts: the t-shirt. Other accessories followed, and “Obey!” the clothing line was born. Simply put, what Shepard Fairey is now doing is no longer art. It’s not even art about advertising. It is advertising. And it’s boring.
The problem that Shephard Fairey presents also leads to a fear: that he may be, in fact, the perfect portraitist to render Obama. The purveyor of radical aesthetics is rendering the visage of radical hope—neither of whom is very radical. His work is an instant exposure of all we might hope for from Obama, and all that we stand to lose—even if Obama, unlike Fairey, was cast in the role rather than having auditioned for it. After all, Obama has made no secret of his conciliatory, center-left leanings. Yet the penumbra of the deeply transformative hangs over him. He has become a kind of imago of progress and liberalism, despite his stated positions, which resemble in far fewer ways what passed for true liberalism a generation ago—or even today, in the minds of some. Staring into the deep blues and reds of the “Person of the Year,” one fears that in skewering Fairey, one is potentially pinning down who Obama might turn out to be: a mere bundle of associations, linked—inevitably and irretrievably—with movements he did not start, a politics he does not support, and a transformation he cannot possibly represent. In the image, past ideologies and present branding beautifully fuse in a political tableau distant from any actual politics.
In the meantime, if you’re in D.C. have a look for yourself. The “Hope” poster was recently acquired by the Smithsonian and hung in the National Portrait Gallery, where it will rest not far from the portrait of Richard Nixon painted by Norman Rockwell. Our most sanguine of painters for our most sinister president. One hopes that the irony in Shepard Fairey’s portrait will be a reversal of this: a huckster artist trading on an aesthetic to which he has little claim nonetheless rendering an image of a president who if he does not radicalize can at least galvanize the country: A genuine, thoughtful leader.