EDITORIAL: “THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE: SHEPARD FAIREY AND THE ART OF APPROPRIATION”
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE:
SHEPARD FAIREY AND THE ART OF APPROPRIATION
As underground art phenomenon SHEPARD FAIREY’s first major museum retrospective prepares to open at the INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART/BOSTON on February 6th, we feel the need to address some of the vicious and unfounded rumors surrounding the originality of Shepard’s artwork that have been floated online in recent years. Though written by a variety of different detractors for a questionable array of reasons, the common thread binding them all—aside from a thinly masked veneer of obvious envy in most cases—is a nearly ubiquitous lack of understanding of the artist’s use of appropriated imagery in his work and the longstanding historical precedent for this mode of creative expression. READ ON:
In short, Picasso wasn’t a plagiarist; Warhol’s art wasn’t pointless (well, not entirely); and Roy Lichtenstein wasn’t a lazy money-grubber taking a shortcut to stardom via Mickey Mouse (or was he?). In their time, people railed against these pioneering Pop artists for their then-radical use of appropriated imagery, but today those detractions have largely been put to rest (oftentimes in court), and we won’t waste any more time here defending them. Readers in search of a more meaningful discussion of this topic, however, should take time to acquaint themselves with artist Richard Prince’s use of “rephotographed” images beginning in the late 1970s and the legal shitstorm and subsequent art superstardom that ensued.
Unfortunately, a widespread and baseless internet campaign to smear Shepard Fairey has been going on for some time now. It primarily revolves around a widely circulated article by artist Mark Vallen, whose evident distaste for Shepard’s work—and obvious lack of modern art world knowledge—led him to jump to a handful of hollow conclusions questioning the originality legitimacy of Fairey’s art. If this writing were simply a balanced, albeit negative critique, or even an educated “gotcha” piece no one would care, but the article in question is an unabashed and well-disseminated character-assassination attempt, one we thought was finally worthy of our attention here on the pages of Supertouch given Shepard’s recent, and metorical rise to public prominence.
For those unfamiliar with the piece in question, please pause for a moment to read it HERE before proceeding.
Done? The way Vallen tells it, Shepard has based his 20-year art career solely around cashing in on the work of other people. Yet the images that Vallen uses to support this claim are almost all examples of Shepard’s street art from the formative stages of his career (1990s and early 2000s), and were sold only in editions of 100 or 200 at $20 or $25 a pop at the time. Considering that hundreds, maybe thousands of those same posters were pasted up on the street at Fairey’s personal expense, it’s certain the artist never saw a dime of profit from all that printing and in most cases probably failed to even recoup costs. Furthermore, none of Vallen’s reference points come from the art that Shepard has sold in recent years for substantial profit. It can’t be said whether Vallen tried but couldn’t find any clearly plagiarized imagery in that work, or simply didn’t bother to look, but his claims about cash cows simply do not add up, especially since Shepard didn’t have a single solo gallery show for the first 10 years of his career
In his piece, Vallen defines plagiarism as “the deliberate passing off of someone else’s work as your own,” and claims that the difference between Fairey and Lichtenstein is that the latter never laid claim to Mickey Mouse, while Shepard tries to deceitfully sneak his appropriations past viewers in broad daylight. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth (the Shepard part, that is). If Vallen had bothered to open “Supply and Demand,” Shepard’s career retrospective book released more than a year and a half before Vallen published his article on his site, he would have seen many of Fairey’s images reproduced side-by-side with the originals that were appropriated or referenced. Clearly there’s no basis to Vallen’s claim that Shepard “filches artworks and hopes no one notices,” when the artist himself is publishing evidence of his appropriation—with accompanying text explaining his process and rationale—and distributing it openly around the world.
In fact, “Supply and Demand” actually makes for quite a wellspring of proof regarding Vallen’s ignorance of Fairey’s work. The author seems to think the artist has no understanding of the history of the images he uses, yet the book features page after page of Shepard’s descriptions of source imagery and the history behind it. Many of these descriptions clarify that Fairey either chose to appropriate certain images specifically because of their historical relevance and context or selected images that best exemplified a historical period, event, or group that he wanted to illuminate.
Overall, the concept of using reference images in the context of modern art seems to have eluded Vallen completely in regards to Fairey’s art. When he claims that Shepard strips away historical meaning and context in his artworks, he’s missing the entire point of referencing: By taking precisely the elements of an image that speak of its historical meaning and original context and incorporating them into a new image, an artist creates a visual comparison, juxtaposing new and old. Such a contrasting is inherent in the act of referencing, and the intended result is for viewers to consider the relationship of the two images and hopefully spark a dialogue: Are they really distinct, or just symbols of the same phenomenon? Is the artist saying the two images are similarly or differently relevant? Is the older image outdated and in need of an update, or is it a commentary on society’s perverse obsession with overhauling classic works? Does this new recontextualized image make me feel any differently than the old one did?
These are questions most people consider, usually subconsciously, when looking at images that employ references as visual cues. Vallen, however, fails to ask any of these questions, and seems to assume the only distinction between two images is that the original was created in some heroic act of personal and cultural struggle while Fairey’s was born of greed and laziness. Given these guidelines, Vallen must believe the Sex Pistols used the official portrait of the Queen of England and put a safety pin through her lip because they couldn’t do any better on their own and needed an image that would sell. The answer here is obvious, yet the author openly criticizes Fairey’s “Greetings From Iraq” design—an image with a clear political message—despite obvious similarities.
In his article, Vallen writes Fairey’s work off as “machine art that any second-rate art student could produce” and claims he’s “never seen any evidence indicating Fairey can draw at all.” It’s a convenient yet entirely specious argument, seeing as how all of the images Vallen cites as examples of exact reproduction are visibly different from the originals they resemble, with lines that are clearly hand-drawn. As for the notion that anyone can do what Shepard does, this issue seems to have been laid to rest entirely during the 2008 presidential campaign. Not only was Shepard’s image of Barack Obama the most popular—and widely considered the most powerful—it spawned dozens, maybe hundreds, of imitations in the form of profitable bootlegs that earned money for profiteering third parties, none of which came close in terms of style or drawing power.
Vallen goes on to question whether Shepard truly supports the left-wing causes he depicts in his work, claiming that it’s “not impossible to view Fairey’s work as right-wing in essence, since it largely ransacks leftist history and imagery while the artist laughs all the way to the bank.” It’s also not impossible to view Shepard’s work as the product of space aliens, since perception doesn’t really have any boundaries, but let’s be realistic: Why would anyone scale buildings risking life and limb in the process—not to mention the very real threat of arrest (which, for Shepard, has often involved a hospital stay as well as a jail stay, since he’s diabetic and is deprived of his insulin when jailed)—if he didn’t care about inserting his images and not himself, into the public eye? Isn’t this the same thing that motivated Black Panther poster artists of a different era?
Furthermore, would a true right-wing ideologue have any interest in spreading left-wing imagery, even if he did make a few dollars in the process? Could Vallen really believe an artist who donated all of the proceeds from sales of Obama posters to his presidential campaign (according to public campaign finance information available online, Shepard and his wife, Amanda, donated $300,000 to $400,00 to Obama, the Democratic National Committee Democratic committees in various swing states, and other Democratic “victory funds”) did so only to go home and secretly pray to an altar of George Bush or even worse, Dick Cheney? If Vallen is to be believed, the same must be true in the case of Fairey’s countless donations of artworks and money to causes like the Chiapas Relief Fund, Hope for Darfur, the ACLU, MoveOn, the movement to overturn Prop 8, 11th Hour Action, Hurricane Katrina relief, Southern California fire relief, LA teenage shelters, children’s charities in Iraq and the U.S., Free the West Memphis 3, and Rush Arts for inner-city schools (to name just a few). Fittingly, the most ridiculous aspect of this “stealing from the left to give to the right” argument is that Vallen himself makes—and sells—art depicting left-wing figures and social issues, just like Shepard does. It’s not impossible to view him as a hypocrite.
In an effort to ensure artistic integrity, Vallen and his cohort Lincoln Cushing suggest certain regulations for usage of appropriated imagery. Actually, “expropriated” is the exact word they use here, which seems awfully excessive considering the impossibility of truly dispossessing someone of their work by borrowing it, unless perhaps Duchamp had gone to the Louvre, painted a mustache directly onto the Mona Lisa, crossed out Da Vinci’s signature, and signed it himself. According to Cushing, artists ought to leave footnotes or some other form of reference on their work to distinguish it from the work they appropriated. Given this guideline, Warhol should have credited Botticelli when he reinterpreted “Birth of Venus,” while Roy Lichtenstein should have shouted out Walt Disney when he painted “Look Mickey.” By the same token, following this rule would mean Vallen citing the photographers whose images he uses as reference for his paintings while giving retroactive credit to Lichtenstein whose Pop Art style was blatantly copped for his own “Nuclear War?! There Goes My Career!” image, which appeared on the cover of the LA Weekly before being sold by the artist as a screen print.
In discussing the Gary Grimshaw MC5 “white panther” image that Shepard used for a t-shirt design, Vallen claims that Fairey “copied the image in exact detail” for his own work. Yet even a cursory glance at the images side-by-side (which Vallen provides) shows two similar yet distinct designs, with different wings, faces, and MC5 typography set against them. The panther in question here isn’t even Grimshaw’s own. He lifted it openly from the Black Panthers, which Vallen acknowledges despite calling Grimshaw’s work “a unique creation” while decrying Shepard’s version as an act of plagiarism, even though Shepard didn’t use a single direct graphic element that Grimshaw himself created, just a similar concept.
Another double standard is evident when Vallen describes Pirkle Jones’ “Unknown Panther” photo as “a compassionate image that served the cause of African-American dignity and liberation” while in the same breath calling Shepard’s appropriation of it “a stolen and regurgitated image stripped of all historical meaning and refashioned to serve only one purpose—the advancement of Fairey’s career.” It’s a ridiculous claim, since the subject—although anonymous—in Shepard’s work is clearly and unmistakably a Black Panther. In fact, the subject’s anonymity here serves to render him all the more iconic, since the artist’s symbolically-charged illustration could lead an unwitting viewer to assume that the subject is actually Huey Newton or Bobby Seale at first glance. It’s an image that anyone familiar with the Black Panthers and their history could recognize regardless of how they felt about the group personally. While Shepard’s version itself may not be historical, its subject certainly is, and its temporal context is as meaningful as the subject: The presence of an inspirational Black Panther icon on a 21st century city street conveys a sense that the Panthers’ cause hasn’t yet been won and this image is still needed to remind us where we came from as a society and where we are now. Isn’t that why Vallen champions social justice through his art? Or is he just trying to cash in on it?
Describing Shepard’s use of Rupert Garcia’s “Down with the White-ness” graphic, Vallen claims that Fairey “removed all meaning and intent from Garcia’s original by transforming the image into a portrait of Andre the Giant.” However, from another angle it seems the appropriation of the image was an attempt to capture the message of empowerment and make it inclusive rather than divisive—making it his own by using Andre the Giant’s face and the word “posse,” two unmistakably prominent elements of Shepard’s visual language. Although Fairey created a new subject and context, the meaning and intent in his work were precisely what he maintained from the original, utilizing elements of Garcia’s image that bespeak empowerment to bolster his own image carrying the same message. Here, the new subject and context may both be nonsensical—intentionally so, specifically for the sake of being questioned—but the rest of the image, the part that directly appropriates Garcia’s work, serves to send a concrete message that is anything but hollow.
Over and over, Vallen paints a portrait of Shepard as greedy profiteer, but one need only pay a visit to eBay to determine the fallacy of that claim. There, Shepard’s prints trade at prices of $100 and up (and often much higher), and not just older, more obscure pieces, but the same posters you can buy at obeygiant.com for $40 (the typical price there). Any economist worth his salt would tell you that a consistent eBay price is a good indication of fair market value. So why doesn’t Shepard raise his prices? Because he wants his work to be accessible and affordable, even if it means less money in his own pocket. In the case of his street art, it means zero money in his pocket, but street art is the apotheosis of accessibility, a point that Shepard hammers at whenever he quotes Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Nevertheless, Vallen quotes Josh MacPhee, who claims Shepard is copyrighting other people’s works and “attempting to … enclose the visual commons.” Not only is this obviously untrue, it’s a completely absurd notion when one considers that Shepard regularly installs his art in the most open and public venue possible, free of charge to all.
Vallen also attacks Shepard’s basic philosophy, calling his views “hollow and non-committal.” Yet in “Supply and Demand” and throughout his writing over the years, particularly in his 1990 manifesto, the artist describes the intentional ambiguity of his art as a way to bring the viewer into the conversation. By leaving the message open to interpretation, he forces the viewer to question the image and its place in its surroundings. Fairey has always maintained that getting people to “question everything” is one of his goals—and that kind of work ethic isn’t achieved without commitment.
It’s quite obvious from Vallen’s tone that he doesn’t think much of Shepard’s art. Of course the author is duly entitled to his opinion, but the constant allusion to Vallen’s feelings throughout the piece does little to imbue it with any journalistic integrity. The most bothersome aspect about his commentary, however, isn’t Vallen’s relentless bashing of Shepard’s work, but rather him confusing his own opinion with fact. In nearly every paragraph he makes sweeping—and baseless—assumptions about Shepard’s motives, claiming that Fairey cares simply about money and little else. Obviously, nobody but Shepard knows what’s going through his mind—least of all Vallen—so let’s be reasonable and consider the simple facts. If Shepard’s only motive were greed, wouldn’t he be a hedge fund manager or a personal injury lawyer? Surely, only a fool would make street art, which is completely free to everyone except the artist—who has to pay the material cost of making it and potentially the collateral cost of getting busted for putting it up illegally—if money was all one were after? Truth be told, street art is no Madoff scheme, though it carries the accompanying legal tangles just the same.
It should also be noted that the bulk of Fairey’s career has been spent operating during a time when street art was of little monetary value in the art world, both high and low. Only in the last five years at best has the genre began to show relative financial promise, and like all things fashionable, may fall from favor again tomorrow, especially considering the current distraught state of the art world and collector’s notoriously fickle tastes. In his writing, Vallen commits the fallacy of equating the artist’s results with his intent, which is to say he thinks that the reason Shepard has been so successful financially is that he planned it all along.
Considering that Fairey’s career began entirely by accident after he made a funny stencil—of an appropriated image no less—and put it on a sticker, then posted that sticker around town as an open-ended social experiment, it’s hard to believe that he expected all along to turn that sticker into a house in the hills. If it is true, then Shepard should be picking lottery numbers for all of us (and designing the tickets). ST
A Social And Psychological Explanation
The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.
Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.
Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence, which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction is positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.
—Shepard Fairey, 1990
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