by Steven Heller / Time Magazine / originally posted April 10, 2009
Even before Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster became the focus of legal and ethical scrutiny — for Fairey’s use of Mannie Garcia’s A.P. news photo as the basis of the now ubiquitous image — some design critics and practitioners had already questioned the street artist’s habit of “sampling” existing imagery. A scolding essay by Mark Vallen, entitled “Obey Plagiarist Fairey,” which was published online in 2007, accused Fairey, who created the “OBEY GIANT” project in 1989, of “expropriating and recontextualizing artworks of others.” The booty in this alleged thievery is primarily propaganda imagery from the 1920s (Russian Constructivism and Bolshevist posters) to the 1960s (Chinese Socialist Realism and counter-culture rock posters). However, Vallen’s harsh indictment seems not to have hurt Fairey’s reputation. If anything, the criticism enhances his subversive agenda, as it fosters debate about the line between influence and theft in art and design.
Fairey’s image-making follows the lead of earlier rogue art and design movements, like Dada in the 1920s or psychedelia in the 1960s, as well as the Situationists in the 1970s, and even the retro/postmodernists (i.e., designers who borrowed passé commercial art styles) in the 1980s and 1990s. Some guerrilla art is rooted in a romantic Robin Hood notion: steal from the powerful; tamper with sacred cows; and avoid getting caught. Fairey has been caught several times, and was arrested on his way to the Feb. 6 opening of a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston.
Comparisons have been made between Fairey and Andy Warhol’s transfiguration of the Brillo Box into an evocation of pop culture; he is also linked to the skateboarder practice of ripping off and then satirically twisting mainstream corporate logos and brands by altering a name or symbol. His sensibility is perhaps even more reminiscent of the old Mad magazine advertising parodies and their derivative, Wacky Packs, which send up mainstream products by co-opting and changing their names.
Those who rebuff Fairey’s work are angry that he misappropriates (read: steals) famous art and design works; they argue that Warhol changed paradigms while Fairey makes knockoffs. I did an interview with Fairey for his recent book, “Obey: Supply & Demand,” and I admit that on occasion he has come close to crossing the line from acceptable borrowing into murky infringement territory. But after seeing the satiric art barbs that he aimed at politics, cultural icons and bêtes noires in his exhibition at the I.C.A. (where I participated in a panel discussion on appropriation), I can say this: Shepard Fairey is not a crook.
He has indeed copied a number of established graphic works in art and design history, including Koloman Moser’s emblematic Art Nouveau cover for the 1901 Vienna Secession magazine Ver Sacrum and the image (well known in graphic design circles) of a pained woman holding her ears, which was taken from a poster cautioning against noise pollution by the Swiss designer Josef Muller-Brockmann. Yet these images are playfully twisted, not maliciously pilfered. The critics argue that literal replication of the originals — and this is true of Moser and Muller-Brockmann’s imagery, among others — is ethically wrong, but that charge fails to take into account Fairey’s fundamental ethos. His is a wink and a nod toward visual culture and media monopoly. No designer with Fairey’s experience and historical knowledge could be so stupid as to pinch such visible historical artifacts and call them his own. On the contrary, Fairey sees popular visual culture in terms of what Tom Wolfe has called a “big closet” of shared objects. For him, the ubiquity of the graphic design and advertising art that he relies on for source material makes it a kind of commercial folk art. Although some of what he borrows is not as anonymously vernacular as one might like, Fairey believes that the fact that it is designed for public consumption makes it free for the taking.
In Fairey’s parodies of Warhol’s “Marilyn” paintings (in which he replaces Marilyn Monroe with his famous Andre the Giant image over the headline “Obey”), or of a popular poster of Jimi Hendrix by John Van Hamersveld, it is difficult not to recognize Fairey’s humorous intent or his sly commentary on how media –- as art and commerce –- exploits everything that will turn a profit. Fairey is essentially arguing that icons can be conflated and repurposed to achieve manipulative results. His own appropriation refers to that which goes on in the mass media every day. At its most articulate, his work is a critique of image ownership.
But this does not mean the results are not sometimes simplistic. Indeed, some of his posters are ruefully naïve. Still, after seeing the last 20 years of Fairey’s output at the I.C.A., the last thing I’d call him is a crook. What I would say, however, is that his “Obey” has evolved from a cultural critique into a successful commercial brand with anti-establishment overtones. To protect that brand, even he is now aggressively using legal means to stop other artists from appropriating his work. While there’s nothing crooked about this, it is painfully ironic, if not disappointing, to see “Obey Giant” co-opted by Obey the Brand.
Steven Heller, a former art director at The New York Times, is a co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts and a blogger and author.