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.

Please do not link to this web post, instead link to the complete article located at:

Punk 365: La Luz de Jesus Gallery

La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood hosts a Photo Exhibit, Book Signing and Live Performance for Punk 365, the latest book from music writer Holly George-Warren. With a foreword by L’enfant terrible Richard Hell, the encyclopedic volume traces punk from forerunners like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, on through originators like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash, to the punk explosion that occurred in Los Angeles with bands like X, the Germs, and the Screamers. The text is supported by photographs from those intrepid souls who dared to take a camera into the maelstrom; Bob Gruen, Roberta Bayley, Jill Furmanovsky, and Jenny Lens.

Photo by Jenny Lens

“X.” Photo by Jenny Lens 1979 ©. Lens snapped this shot of Exene Cervenka and John Doe of the band X, during a performance at the Stardust Ballroom, August 30, 1979. Captured in the audience is yours truly – I’m wearing the red bandana at the far right of the photo.

LA photographer Jenny Lens has twenty four photos published in Punk 365, one of which will be on view at the Hollywood exhibit, her snapshot of LA’s most famous punk band, X. Shot during a raucous live performance at LA’s Stardust Ballroom in 1979, Lens’ photo also happened to captured me in the audience… ah, wild youth!

This special event will also include a live performance by Tony Kinman’s newest outfit, Los Trendy. If you were around in the late 70s you might recall that brothers Chip and Tony Kinman founded the Dils. One of the very first political punk bands to emerge from the US, the Dils opened for the Clash during that band’s debut US tour. The Book Signing, Photo Exhibit, and Live performance will take place on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007, from 4 – 8 pm. La Luz de Jesus gallery is located at 4633 Hollywood Blvd.

Pressed in Time: American Prints

I cannot recommend highly enough, Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, the current exhibit at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Made up of 163 prints created by 82 artists during the first half of the 20th century, the show encapsulates American art as it was before the ascendancy of abstraction; an epoch when realism, meaning, compassion and technical mastery reigned supreme in the world of American art. The artists in the exhibition range from the well known to the obscure, but all the works on display are superlative examples of the art of printmaking.

Etching by Douglas Gorsline

[ Brooklyn Local – Douglas Gorsline. Engraving 1945. Gorsline’s portrait of a fashionable young woman actually documented the movement of American women into the nation’s urban workforce. Depicting an office worker, the title of the print also refers to a popular subway stop. ]

The period represented by Pressed in Time, has always been of particular interest to me, as so many artists of that era made social themes the focus of their art. The term “Social Realism” was given deep humanistic meaning by American artists, and in part it was their cue that inspired me to become a contemporary realist given to social commentary. All of the artists in The Huntington’s exhibit were brilliant painters, but they were also populists whose democratic impulses led them to create multiples; prints that would help make art accessible to the masses – and it’s that concept that these prints still manage to achieve. Whether you’re interested in aesthetics, history, politics or sociology – this exhibit will speak directly to you.

One group of artists well represented by Pressed in Time, are those attached to the so-called “Ashcan School” of early twentieth century New York. These artists who brilliantly painted the city’s working poor and immigrant populations, were disparaged and mocked by hostile art critics who chastised them with the insulting label of “ashcan” – a reference to the trash bins found in urban slums. I’ve long been stirred by this particular circle of artists, and so I was thrilled beyond reason to learn that two of the Ashcan painters, John Sloan and George Bellows, had a number of prints in the exhibit. For now I’ll reserve comment on John Sloan, as I’ve had it in mind to write a long essay about him and his influence on my own work – so instead I’ll take this opportunity to gush effusively over Mr. Bellows.

I think of George Bellows as one of America’s greatest painters. Most famous for his paintings of Boxers, like the jaw-dropping Stag at Sharkey’s, Bellows had an eye for capturing the American scene. A stunning lithographic version of his famous Sharkey’s is thankfully part of the Pressed in Time exhibit. It’s the largest print in the show, but it’s not size that makes the work commanding – it’s the artist’s mastery over the art of lithography and his genius at composition that makes Sharkey’s a tour de force. But Bellows also had an eye for controversy – and after watching the exaggerated antics of a popular fundamentalist preacher at a New York City revival meeting, he made the fire and brimstone Bible thumper the subject of several mocking artworks. The Huntington exhibit includes two of these – 1923 lithographs that depict the preacher, Billy Sunday.

Etching by George Bellows

[ Billy Sunday – George Bellows. Lithograph 1923. ]

At the beginning of the 20th century, Sunday was the most powerful evangelical Christian preacher in the United States. A conservative Republican, Sunday was an unwavering backer of World War 1 and a supporter of Prohibition. He opposed teaching evolution and stood firm against the “godless” frivolities of dancing, reading novels, and playing cards. Sunday became incredibly wealthy delivering frenetic over-the-top sermons to millions of people across America, and it should come as no surprise that he was courted by the country’s mighty financial oligarchs and formidable politicians. Bellows’ opinion of Sunday could just as easily be applied to today’s televangelists:

“Do you know, I believe Billy Sunday is the worst thing that ever happened to America? He is death to the imagination, to spirituality, to art…. His whole purpose is to force authority against beauty. He is against freedom, he wants a religious autocracy, he is such a reactionary that he makes me an anarchist. You can see why I like to paint him and his devasting ‘saw-dust-trail.’ I want people to understand him.”

The Huntington wisely mounted in a side room of the main exhibition hall, a special exhibit that fully explains for the general public the printmaking techniques on display in the show. Presenting various stages of prints in the making as well as the tools and materials required to create the artworks, the display is of great educational value for the novice puzzled by the confusing array of print types. For instance, the process of Intaglio (etching) is put in plain words, with the description enhanced by showing actual etched copper plates. Variants like soft and hard ground etchings, engravings, Aquatints and Mezzotints are also thoroughly described. For connoisseurs and professional artists already familiar with the traditional techniques of etching, woodcut, and lithography, Pressed in Time offers a dizzying array of gorgeously executed prints, but it’s also evident that some of the artists in the show were experimenting with relatively new techniques for their day.

Serigraphy, or screenprinting, can be traced to the textile industry of ancient Japan, where screens made of silk or hair printed stencils with assorted motifs and patterns onto kimono fabrics. The process was advanced in England during the early 1920’s, and used mostly for commercial printing, however, the serigraphic print would not be elevated to a high art form until the 1960s. Nonetheless, the Pressed in Time exhibit clearly shows American social realist artists using silkscreen printing to great effect. The Hitchhiker by Robert Gwathmey is one such serigraphic print.

Silkscreen print by Robert Gwathmey

[ The Hitchhiker – Robert Gwathmey. Color screenprint. 1937. The artist’s rumination on race and class in depression era America. ]

Gwathmey’s 1937 print is modernist in the extreme, angular forms and flat colors arranged so that the negative space filled by a blank sky becomes oppressive – just like the hot summer’s day the artist meant to suggest. But the topic of the print is not stifling weather, it’s racial and class oppression. Two black men looking for work are depicted hitchhiking along a road, the fact that they are going in opposite directions tells you that their quest is a luckless one. The backdrop to their bleak pursuit is a series of roadside billboards advertising wealth and luxury; on the right a giant lobster can be seen – a promise of foods never to be tasted by unemployed workers. The two remaining billboard images are of fashionable blond women, reminders that those with dark skin are not included in America’s vision of success.

Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) was born into a poor white family in Richmond, Virginia, but he devoted a large part of his art towards presenting the dignity and beauty of African Americans, as well as portraying their plight of being denied full human and civil rights. Like so many of his contemporaries, he focused his considerable talents on presenting the realities of the day, the Great Depression, racial and social injustice and the brutalities of poverty. Gwathmey was wholly dedicated to the honest portrayal of the working class – black and white. When he was awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Foundation in 1944, he used the grant money to arrange his living on a tobacco farm for a year, where he worked the fields with Black sharecroppers and created artworks that depicted their lives and struggles.

Like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, artists whose impressive prints are also included in Pressed in Time, John Steuart Curry was a leader of the American school of painters who came to be known as the Regionalists. Curry devoted his considerable talents to an examination of his native state of Kansas, believing that the very essence of America could be found by telling the stories of the heartland’s humble working people. His most well known paintings were those created as murals for the Kansas Statehouse. The most famous of those murals, the remarkable Tragic Prelude, portrays the radical abolitionist John Brown against a backdrop of a gigantic tornado and a raging prairie fire. Curry utilized the tornado as “a biblical pillar of clouds to guide John Brown in his struggle for a free Kansas.” Flanking Brown and facing each other are the anti and pro-slavery militias that waged the fratricidal clashes that would be the prelude to the Civil War.

Lithograph by John Steuart Curry

[ John Brown – John Steuart Curry. Lithograph 1939. A thundering portrait of the radical abolitionist. ]

Pressed in Time includes three significant lithographs by Curry, the thundering portrait John Brown – based upon the Tragic Prelude mural, and two other prints that have to do with Blacks held in bondage. Man Hunt shows an armed mob of whites with packs of frenzied blood hounds, searching the woods for a Black person on the run. The subject here is not the fleeing soul (who you don’t even see), but the inhumanity and bloodlust of the white racist hooligans. A chilling companion print, The Fugitive, cuts closer to the bone. It depicts the conclusion of the mob’s hunt, where a Black man has attempted to save himself by climbing up a tree to hide in the branches. The racists have not yet found their exhausted prey, but the end seems near. The terrible finale is symbolized by two Luna moths settled on the tree – that particular type of moth lives only one day after emerging from its cocoon.

Lithograph by Pele deLappe

[ Rumors of War – Pele deLappe. Lithograph. 1939. ]

Rumors of War, a 1939 lithograph by Pele deLappe, portrays the growing concerns held by Americans as the country slid towards direct involvement in the Second World War. The artist depicted a room full of people, two men and two women (the standing woman in the background is the artist’s self-portrait), paying rapt attention to a radio broadcast. What terrible news might they have been listening to? In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March, and the Italian fascists occupied Albania in April, the same month the Spanish Republic fell to fascists under General Franco. Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler would sign a non-aggression pact in August, and the Nazis would invade Poland in September. There was plenty of bad news to be heard – and the gloomy looks on the faces of the characters drawn by deLappe seem to tell us that they’ve heard it all. Warplanes fly past the open window of the room they inhabit, an omen of what was to come – the USA would officially enter the war in 1941.

For those unable to take in the exhibit, an informative and beautifully illustrated catalog book is available. Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950, is on exhibit until January 6th, 2008, at The Huntington Library’s, Boone Gallery. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month – but you must reserve a free day ticket. Otherwise, general admission is $15 for adults, or $12 for Seniors and $10 for students. More information about the exhibit can be found on The Huntington’s website.

How do you know you’re not a Fascist?

The shipyard with its giant construction cranes and warehouses, still waters and slate gray skies, makes for quite a beautiful oil painting. The artist applied a heavy impasto of vibrant colors using large bristle brushes, and also used a palette knife to trowel on the hot and cool hues of gray that make up the leaden clouds. But aside from the technical prowess of the artist, what does the painting say to us? One could bring up the mood cast by the canvas, or perhaps comment on the emotional responses to such a scene, but we shouldn’t overlook the artist’s intent – which was to comment on the labor of ship building in the year 1944.

Now let’s consider the next canvas by the same artist, another understated examination of labor – but one created as a landscape painting in 1940. The artist has depicted a rough landscape of rocky crags whose crests are topped by verdant green meadows and trees. A second glance reveals a rock quarry, where workers toil at extracting blocks of stone from the mountainside. Like the first painting, a palette knife has created startling realistic effects, the living rock of the quarry made all the more believable by the artist’s experienced hand. But again – what does this painting say to us?

Apart from their shared realism, the paintings have other commonalities. Both focus on the intensity of the natural world, with the presence of the workers a mere sidebar – in fact, there are no workers to be seen in the shipyard painting at all. The two paintings also deal with the idea of monumentality, giant mechanized cranes looming over a harbor, and enormous slabs of stone hewn from a colossal ridge. The artworks minimize the role of human hands in labor, and instead offer panoramas that might have been fashioned by supernatural forces.

Artworks are never simply artworks. There are always implications and meanings attached to them, whether artists admit to this or not – and there are most certainly ramifications associated with better known works. The paintings I’m discussing here make for an excellent example. Both were created by German artist, Erich Mercker, and both were commissioned by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party in order to celebrate the building of infrastructure in fascist Germany. The tranquil looking shipyard is a depiction of the harbor where the Nazi U-Boat fleet was built, the same wartime armada of deadly submarines that menaced Atlantic shipping and blockaded Britain. The painting of the quarry shows workers cutting stone to be used in the construction of the Nazi seat of power in Berlin. Moreover, since Germany’s able-bodied men were at the time in uniform and occupying eight European countries from Austria to France, and the Nazi war machine was preparing its 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union – the workers in the painting are more than likely slave laborers conscripted from concentration camps.

While my assessment of Mercker’s paintings can serve as a lesson in peeling back the hidden layers of meaning in an artwork, that is by no means the point of my article. Nor do I mean to scrutinize the role and responsibilities that I believe an artist has – which is always a topic of discussion on this web log. However, I do wish to point out that Mercker’s paintings – and works of art by other German artists commissioned by the Nazis, are now on view at an American museum that has failed to identify the paintings as Nazi propaganda.

I’m not at all offended that the Man at Work museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, would decide to show such works, as I’m of the opinion that displays of artworks created by artists of the Third Reich are allowable provided extraordinary care is taken to identify the works for what they are. However, the Man at Work museum has taken no such precautions. On the contrary, the labels, supporting text and other documents pertaining to the exhibited Nazi commissioned artworks make no mention of their origins. For instance, the Man at Work museum website merely identifies Erich Mercker as a painter who created “colorful images of steel mills and foundries, bridge and ship-building, quarries and interior views of factories.” No reference is made to what those industrial sites and quarries were manufacturing, and no mention is made of who paid Mercker and where his works were exhibited.

It is repulsive that the Man at Work museum has chosen not to clearly identify some of the artworks in its holdings as Nazi propaganda. The museum has 81 Erich Mercker paintings in its possession, canvases that were not only directly commissioned by the Nazi regime, but glorify that government’s construction projects. For instance, the museum displays Mercker’s painting, Congress Hall in Nuremberg Under Construction, without mentioning or explaining that the building depicted is none other than the main Congress hall for the Nazi party, and that it marked the entrance to the Nazi party rally grounds were the infamous Nuremberg Rallies were held annually.

Painting by Erich Mercker

[ Congress Hall in Nuremberg Under Construction – Erich Mercker. Oil painting. Date unknown. Commissioned by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. The artist’s painting is of the Nazi Party main Congress hall, where the infamous Nuremberg Rallies took place. ]

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an excellent article on Oct. 27, 2007, titled: Art with Nazi links raises questions for new museum. The article noted that museum director John Kopmeier opposed providing proper labeling and historical context for the Nazi commissioned artworks, saying: “I could argue against this… it is of no interest to us.” This hardly seems a reasonable – let alone a professional stance – for the director of a museum; but then, as noted in the Sentinel’s article, Kopmeier has no “professional expertise in art or art history,” and “there is no professional curator on the museum’s staff.”

The Man at Work museum was supposedly intended to celebrate labor through the ages, but the most political of all human endeavors – work – is presented by the museum in the most apolitical manner, or so it seems at first glance. Industrialist Eckhart G. Grohmann donated his extensive art collection to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, who have housed the collection in their newly dedicated museum. Grohmann’s collection is focused on the theme of labor and is principally composed of German and Northern European artists. For the most part the artists in the collection are little known, but in the case of Erich Mercker, Ferdinand Staeger, and Ria Picco-Ruckert – history obliterated their names due to their collaboration with Hitler’s regime.

SS Guards - Painting by Ferdinand Staeger

[ SS-Wache (SS Guards) – Ferdinand Staeger. Oil painting. Year unknown. Staeger’s paintings on the topic of labor are on view at the Man at Work museum. While this particular painting by Staeger depicting “heroic” Nazi SS soldiers is not in the museum’s collection – it is indicative of the artist’s political views. In displaying Staeger’s paintings about labor, the museum fails to mention the artist’s Nazi connections.]

While Erich Mercker was not a member of the Nazi party, he was highly favored by the Nazi hierarchy and his paintings were collected by party members. Mercker also exhibited at the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), the inaugural exhibit of the Nazi “House of German Art” where the Third Reich displayed what they considered to be the finest artworks created by the “master race.” Ferdinand Staeger also exhibited at Nazi authorized venues, including the Great German Art Exhibition, and Hitler himself was an enthusiastic collector of Staeger’s works. Ria Picco-Ruckert lionized fascist ideals regarding work and collective struggle, and her painting at the Man at Work museum portrays German workers involved in war production at a steel factory. Picco-Ruckert also exhibited her work at the notorious Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg.

It can be argued that some German artists joined the Nazi party or took commissions from them, especially in the early years of the regime, “just to get a job.” Many people were swept up in the ultra-nationalism and conservatism that brought the fascists to power, without fully comprehending how their participation would ultimately lead their country, and the world, to such incomprehensible ruin. But after a certain point it became impossible not to know what was occurring. It was well understood that those “degenerate” artists who strayed from Nazi aesthetics would face severe punishment. Many were dismissed from teaching positions, banned from exhibiting, selling or even creating art. Countless others simply disappeared into concentration camps.

There’s no doubt Erich Mercker, Ferdinand Staeger, and Ria Picco-Ruckert were fully cognizant of what was taking place in their country, and the Man at Work museum is obligated to acknowledge this by properly labeling, with explanatory text – the ghastly history behind some of the paintings in its collection.