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Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey

The following are excerpts from Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey, a critique I wrote about artist Shepard Fairey on the occasion of his solo exhibition, opening Dec.1, 2007, at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles. The full, unedited critique contains thirteen illustrated examples of plagiarisms committed by Fairey, three of which are shown in this web post. To view the complete exposé of Shepard Fairey, visit: www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm

Excerpted article begins:

Most well known for his “Obey Giant” street posters, Shepard Fairey has carefully nurtured a reputation as a heroic guerilla street artist waging a one man campaign against the corporate powers-that-be. Infantile posturing aside, Fairey’s art is problematic for another, more troubling reason - that of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the deliberate passing off of someone else’s work as your own, and Shepard Fairey may be unfamiliar with the term - but not the act. This article is not about the innocent absorption of visual ideas that later materialize unconsciously in an artist’s work, we do after all live in a maelstrom of images and we can’t help but be affected by them. Nor am I referring to an artist’s direct influences - which artist can claim not to have been inspired by techniques or styles employed by others? What I am concerned with is the brazen, intentional copying of already existing artworks created by others - sometimes duplicating the originals without alteration - and then deceiving people by pawning off the counterfeit works as original creations.

Plagiarized original and Shepard Fairey's imitation
[ Left: Still from director Michael Anderson’s 1956 film adaptation of George Orwell’s cautionary story of a dystopic future, 1984. Right: Fairey unmistakably stole his image from the "Big Brother is Watching You" propaganda posters used in Anderson’s film, without crediting the source. ]

When the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, began to implement a series of reforms in 1968, the Soviets feared a counterrevolution. Moscow sent tanks and troops to crush the so-called “Prague Spring“, but history means nothing to Shepard Fairey, who can strip an image of historic meaning faster than you can say “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic”.

During the opening days of the Soviet occupation, Czech patriots glued anti-invasion posters all over the walls of Prague, the nation’s capital. One daring but unidentified Czech artist created a street poster that portrayed the Red Army as liberators in 1945 - but oppressors in 1968. Fairey expropriated that poster and republished it as his own, inserting the words, “Make Art, Not War”.

Plagiarized original and Shepard Fairey's imitation
[ Left: Fairey’s plagiarized poster. Right: Original street poster from Czechoslovakia’s, Prague Spring - Artist unknown 1968. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968. ]

It goes without saying that Fairey has never mentioned the Czech poster he plagiarized, and since posters from the Prague Spring are virtually unknown outside of the Czech Republic, he has so far gotten away with calling this poster - like oh so many other works of his - an original design. Recontextualizing an image like the Prague Spring poster could afford an artist opportunities to reveal forgotten recent histories, linking them to current realities so as to produce instructive political insights. But all we get from Fairey is worn-out sloganeering and self-promotion. One can only wish that Fairey would take a cue from the clichéd catchphrase on his poster and “Make Art” himself instead of incessantly reframing and recycling the works of others.

Plagiarized original and Shepard Fairey's imitation
[ Left: Chinese poster from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution period. Artist unknown. 1968. Right: Fairey’s plagiarized version titled, Guns and Roses. The Chinese poster’s central motif of hands holding aloft machine guns was plainly digitally scanned without any alteration. Fairey, or his assistants, then applied a modified sun-burst background, placed clip-art roses in the gun barrels, and released the imitation as a supposed original work in 2006. ]

The expropriation and reuse of images in art has today reached soaring heights, but that relentless mining and distortion of history will turn out to be detrimental for art, leaving it hollowed-out and meaningless in the process. When I refer to “mining” in this case I mean the hasty examination and extraction of information from our collective past as performed by individuals who do not fully comprehend it. That is precisely what Fairey is guilty of, utilizing historic images simply because he “likes” them, and not because he has any grasp of their significance as objects of art or history. In 1916 Henry Ford, the famous American multimillionaire, bigot, and founder of the Ford Motor Company, uttered the infamous words, “History is Bunk.” That once outrageous statement has now become part and parcel of postmodern art, as reflected in Fairey’s own negligence regarding history.

If carefully examined, the rebellious patina and ersatz activism of Shepard Fairey’s art gives way to reveal little in the way of political imagination. Ultimately his work is the very embodiment of “radical chic”, bereft of historical memory and offering only feeble gestures, babbling incoherencies, and obscurantism as a challenge to the deplorable state of the world. Such an artist cannot provide us with a critical assessment of where we stand today.
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Please do not link to this web post, instead link to the complete article located at:
www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm

[Lincoln Cushing, Josh MacPhee, and Favianna Rodriguez, worked closely with me on researching this article, having initially brought Fairey’s plagiarism to my attention. Cushing is an art historian and author of Revolución: Cuban Poster Art, Visions of Peace & Justice, and Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Josh MacPhee is an artist, activist and author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Survey of the Street Stencil, and Favianna Rodriguez is an artist, activist and Chicana print maker. Their invaluable research and documentation provides the foundation for most of what appears in this article.]

Street Art & The Splasher Manifesto

During the last few months in New York City, someone has taken to destroying the illicit stencil graffiti art and wheat-pasted posters of that city by splashing them with brightly colored daubs of paint. Nicknamed “the Splasher” by the media, the perpetrator has for the most part ignored the majority of street art, preferring instead to purposefully target and deface works by “big name” street artists - the art of Shepard Fairey being a high value target for the vandal. Now “the Splasher” has been revealed to be a collective of sorts, with a profusely illustrated 16-page manifesto taking credit for the vandalism being delivered to the offices of Gothamist.com. Many have come forward to condemn the Splasher group for wanton destruction of street art, which to me is an amusing contradiction - how can vandalism be vandalized?

Initially I was disinclined to write about this whole silly affair, but an essay in the New York Times sent me over the edge. First, let it be known that I’m a supporter of street art, and have dabbled in it myself. I feel that its methods, even though largely prohibited, can be perfectly appropriate - if the result is the circumvention of the elite art world with the intent of introducing art into everyday life, an oppositional “art for the people” if you will. However, when it comes to “being with the people,” there’s a big difference between political practice and facile rhetoric. I realize that what I’m about to say may be construed as “politically incorrect” by those who so vociferously exalt and defend street art, but I’m frankly bemused by this faux controversy.

Sometimes I feel a bit like Winston Smith, the lead character in George Orwell’s haunting dystopic novel, 1984. In one memorable chapter from that book, Smith stumbles into a shabby antique shop and discovers a glass paperweight. The delicate ornament has no value in the harsh social order Smith is a part of, it is an utterly useless thing disdained by the authoritarians who run society and forgotten by everyone else. The object’s sheer loveliness makes it a dangerous and subversive thing. Smith falls in love with the glass orb, realizing that it represents something banished from his reality - beauty. Now beauty is found in many things, and indeed it can be discovered on the surface of wheat-pasted graphics posted on grimy city streets. But I’m not about to trade my elegant glass paperweight for a tattered old poster. If we are to defend art, yes, there are battles to be fought on the avenues, but shouldn’t we also aim higher?

Street art by its very nature is implicitly political, whether it’s done for purely aesthetic reasons or not. It conveys a social message in that it redefines public space as delineated by capital. Street art transforms cheerless urban squalor into colorful outdoor art galleries and gives voice to those who cannot pay inordinate amounts of money to have their ideas “legally” presented to the multitudes. But let’s be clear and direct, there are those who participate in street art because they have a social vision, and those who participate because it offers an opportunistic fast track to fame and fortune. By breaking the sanctified laws of private property - violating one of the cardinal rules of capitalist society - street art has been classified as “vandalism.” In some quarters having an outlaw reputation no doubt comes in handy, and such swaggering “street cred” allows one to huff and puff a great deal, so there’s no mystery as to why elite art circles, enamored of the bizarre and always in search of the “next big thing,” have embraced such gimmickry.

In our media saturated society it’s a given that an individual with the resolve, if not the skill, to blanket a city’s walls with their tedious street art posters, and then follow up with a series of showy press conferences and gallery exhibits - will become the focus of a media blitz feeding frenzy. While lucrative careers have blossomed in this manner, exactly how have the arts been advanced? Thousands of serious and dedicated artists whose marvelous works deserve acknowledgement go ignored as the media is mesmerized by the shenanigans of a gaggle of art stars. There is more than a ring of truth to the Splasher Manifesto, when it states: “The present and banal methods of confronting the prevailing social order through street art have become rotten and rigidified into methods of commodification.”

There are finer points to discuss, like why untold numbers of hideous corporate sponsored billboards despoiling a community are considered legal, while a single unauthorized and non-commercial street poster or graffiti is considered criminal. But to squabble about minutiae takes us from the subject at hand. Street art is ephemeral and was never meant to be long lasting, its romantic and poetic resonance can be found in its transient quality - like those realistic chalk pastel drawings we’ve all seen done on sidewalks. It can also be said that some street artists routinely destroy the works of other street artists. The most celebrated graffiti, stencil art, and wheat-pasted posters are only the top most layer of artworks buried in the fierce competition to be seen and recognized. In that sense, street art is more the counterpart of the cutthroat advertising ethic than a heartfelt gesture of human solidarity.

Most street art was long ago co-opted by the elite art world, and the example of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the 1980’s should be proof enough of that. Without question, this is the other aspect to the street art chronicles that I find particularly obnoxious. While I appreciate street art for its whimsy, boldness and occasional insights, I don’t think it can in any way be equated to the higher arts. While I’m an advocate of diversity and a multiplicity of styles, I believe that the wholesale espousal of street art aesthetics has lead to a debilitated capacity to discern quality and profundity. We have in essence traded in the talented and disciplined muralists of old for pranksters who wheat-paste self-promoting pabulum onto our city walls.

I’ve never understood how Shepard Fairey’s minimalist and obscurest street art portraits of the late wrestling champion, Andre the Giant, have come to be interpreted as meaningful and profound political art - Fairey’s statements notwithstanding. The artist said his Obey Giant posters “stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the campaign and their relationship with their surroundings - because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the motive is not obvious.” That statement seems little more than self-serving claptrap to me, giving some credence to the Splasher’s attacks upon “a cultural realm which revealed a content of commodity recuperation behind the façade of pseudo opposition.” That is especially so now that Fairey’s artworks display $40,000 price tags. I’m not opposed to an artist making money, goodness knows I’m trying to do that myself, I do after all enjoy food on my table and a roof over my head. But there is a difference between having a career and being a careerist.

In the essay that set off this tirade, Splashing the Art World With Anger and Questions, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman makes a few salutary points. He correctly observes that the Splasher group takes inspiration in part, from the Situationists of the late 50’s and early 60’s. An incredibly prescient group of trouble making artists and intellectuals, the Situationists have been credited with giving rise to everything from performance art to punk rock - and my own aesthetic vision has in no small way been impacted by Situationist theory. Kimmelman gives the political philosophy a brief but fair reading, noting that “by comparison” with the Splasher group, “Situationist pranks were pointedly political,” and that “across nearly half a century of random art world mischief, they seem almost scientific in their focus.”

However, Michael Kimmelman rightly questions the Splasher group’s lack of clarity by stating: “the current agitators, although they’ve got some of the revolutionary patter down, seem to lack clearly defined targets or priorities. Is the problem gentrification or the art market or artists or late capitalism? What’s troubling them - the street art they’re defacing or the fact that some of the street artists might also show in galleries?” But the actual thoughts that prompted me to write this harangue, were the final remarks from Kimmelman’s essay, words to which I wholeheartedly agree:

“All that said, public space and civic justice are difficult issues to which the brouhaha returns our attention. New York neighborhoods are indeed changing, not all for the better, as the city becomes more affluent and homogeneous, and art shouldn’t exist in it simply as a symbol of wealth and privilege. It should seize public spaces where it can, to make itself more part of daily life, more relevant in the world, and to become a source of serendipity, pleasure, trouble, controversy and interest to people outside the art world, not just inside it. (….) this latest little flap is proof that art can still matter.”

The New York Times has republished the entire Splasher Manifesto in .pdf format. View, download and print the 16 page illustrated screed from the NYT’s website.