Shepard Fairey: “disconnecting images of important struggles from their roots” since 1989.
hey, do you need a reminder of how disgusting Shepard Fairey’s career is?
here are two images, one produced by Felix Beltrán in 1971 to raise awareness about the political imprisonment of Angela Davis, and one “made” by Fairey in 2003 to advance his art career and work toward his lifelong goal of stealing, sterilizing, and rebranding once-subversive images and symbols, in order to protect those in power. this is just one example among many where Fairey copied directly from images produced by and for liberation movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, removed all historical and political context and any credit to the original artist, and reproduced new versions of these images, often on a huge scale in the form of mass-produced t-shirts and posters. each image is emptied of any political significance, disconnected from a specific social movement or moment in time, and left as an abstract symbol of the possibility of rebellion— and that rebellion, Fairey tells us later, really is best expressed by talking about peace and voting for the democratic party.
this is basically a perfect example of what the situationists called recuperation:
the process by which politically radical ideas and images are twisted, co-opted, absorbed, defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified within media culture and bourgeois society, and thus become interpreted through a neutralized, innocuous or more socially conventional perspective.
Favianna Rodriguez explains: [and this whole article is worth reading]
Fairey loves to rip off the art of people who are part of the counter culture, many times they are people of color, or groups who have fought for social justice, or radicals who have fought against their own countries. In my opinion, this is commodification. The fact that he feels entitled to do this points at his white privilege and white entitlement. When you rip off Cuban artists, Chicano artists, even groups like the Black Panthers - and you fail to give credit - that to me is an excercise of white privilege.
Josh MacPhee has also written a lot about Fairey. Here’s a nugget:
The People’s History posters are not about taking graphics from history, but producing new graphics about that history, and encouraging people to learn, to pique their interest. In some ways, Shepard’s project is the complete inverse of that. His is about stripping the historical context from actual graphics and using them to make money because they imply some sense of authenticity. …
What is important to me is how Fairey exemplifies in many ways the operational model of capitalism. He extracts resources largely from political struggles of Third World and working class people, and then simultaneously sells a slightly processed version of the resources to both wealthy elites in the North, but also cheaper mass-commodity versions to the very same people he is stealing from!
but, of course, it’s complicated. some guy who created FUCT, a clothing brand that claims to be the “synonym of anti-consumerism and progressive thinking by leading the path of decadent and counter-culture aesthetics” [wut!?!], says he was the first person to steal this picture of Angela Davis (and deprive it of context, and fail to credit the original artist) for advertisements and t-shirts, and Fairey just stole from him. so who’s really to blame? (another complication: as Rodriguez points out, “copyright laws work in the favor of the corporate elite” and are usually used by states & corporations to punish and censor artists. then again, she adds, Fairey is pretty much part of the corporate elite at this point.)
it would be easy here to say “blah all art involves using & building off of other people’s ideas, forms, and techniques, [anarchists may add: ‘and copyright is a crock of statist shit’] so it doesn’t really matter”, but i think that’s a fallacy, just like saying “blah all the stores at the mall exploit their workers, from poor women of color in maquilas all the way up to folks working in retail, so it doesn’t really matter which one i shop at” [which, by the way, is a thing that most of us believe]. ultimately, even though i don’t give a fuck about copyright & the legal system it’s a part of, i still think it’s mega shitty to steal, recuperate, and profit from imagery like this.
what can be done? i don’t know. Fairey’s getting tarnished a little in the mainstream media, and facing legal repercussions, for “destroying documents, manufacturing evidence and other misconduct” while being sued for using an AP image in his Obama “HOPE” poster, but that may just make his claim to be representing ‘authentic’ dissent or rebellion stronger. situationists tell us that detournement, the opposite of recuperation, is a strategy, but it’s hard to imagine even the most successful mass-media ‘culture jamming’ giving Fairey the comeuppance he deserves. should we deface all his public art? yes. should we try to educate everyone wearing an “obey” hat or t-shirt? sure. should we consider some method of derailing the retail operation around “obey” products? probably. should
we someone beat him up again? sure, why the hell not.
in sum, FUCK CAPITALISM and its flunkies!
thanks for reading.
*the “disconnecting images…” quote at the top is by Favianna Rodriguez, interviewed in this article.