To OBEY or not to Obey? A critical analysis of the work of Shepard Fairey

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Originally published by Contributoria, April 2015.

There is a long history of artists using their work to undermine the power of the establishment: from the 16th-century Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who explosively depicted female subjects taking bloody revenge on patriarchy; to Joseph Beuys’ famous espousal of the revolutionary potential of art which is latent in all of us; to graffiti and street art which developed in the last decades of the 20th century, which started out as inherently subversive in their form – the artists had to literally break the law when making their pieces on public and private property.

It is here, on the street, where Shepard Fairey cut his teeth, gaining a reputation for his stickers and post ups of Andre the Giant, which in the traditional street art fashion were usually thrown up under cover of darkness, to avoid detection by the authorities. Fast forward to the present and Fairey is about as close to a household name as you can get in the street art world, and has helped set up successful design and advertising companies boasting clients like Pepsi, Saks and Virgin Megastore. This commercial element has brought criticism from some quarters. But this isn’t as simple as a clichéd trope about an artist “selling out”; the production and reception of Fairey’s work strikes right at the heart of issues surrounding seditious art – a complex interplay between appropriation and counter-appropriation, of both resistance to, and assimilation into, the status quo.

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On the face of it, Fairey’s work seems to be steeped in sedition. His website boldly claims – in a play on Herman and Chomsky’s famous work– “Manufacturing Quality Dissent Since 1989”. He frequently employs imagery taken from radical leftist movements, including: Chinese Communist propaganda posters; images of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, a militant Mexican revolutionary group; and images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. His most common choice of palette – striking reds and black and white – seems to be intentionally referencing radical left wing ideologies from communism to anarchism.

Fairey masterfully fuses this loaded imagery with the distinctive street art aesthetic – and by his own admission – with advertising techniques. This gives his work a pleasing immediacy, like a flash-bomb going off in your head. He clearly has a penchant for composition and an adroitness in the essentials of graphic design, which gives his work a mass appeal beyond its leftist symbolism, bearing a likeness to the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. Of course, the symbolism lends Fairey’s work a certain edgy cool, of the type that marketers are constantly trying to tap in to.

[Fairey] sees his entire body of work as a holistic call to “Question everything”. Does that include the artist himself, I wonder?

Despite the obvious monetary reward Fairey has made from work employing such symbolism, he is bullish in the face of criticism levelled at him that he is just using the imagery for his own gain: “It’s not like I’m just jumping on some cool rebel cause for the sake of exploiting it for profit,” Fairey said in an interview with Mother Jones. “I don’t want to demean anyone’s struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful; that’s not my intention.”

Revolutionary symbolism, is of course no one’s to own. Fairey can legitimately claim with his public pieces of art that he is in fact spreading the imagery and message of sedition to a new and broader audience by employing it in his works. Indeed, Fairey is publicly critical of the process of “conspicuous consumption,” and sees his entire body of work as a holistic call to “Question everything”. Does that include the artist himself, I wonder?

For many, Fairey’s revolutionary content becomes egregious when he is using that same style for the marketing campaigns of multi-million dollar companies. Brandalism is a form of street art that appropriates logos from big brands, effectively using the economic might of corporations and turning it back on them by riffing on their ubiquitous brands as a critique of both them and the wider system they represent. Fairey’s work doing advertising for Saks, a luxury department store, is almost the inverse of this process.

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He employs imagery, symbolism and even phraseology typical of those critical of the status quo and uses it to enhance the brand of a major company. His Saks campaign draws heavily on the work of Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko, employing the iconic red and white colours, using phrases like “Want It!”. One piece shows an affluent-looking woman, clutching a handbag in one arm and giving the fist salute – typical of leftist movements – with the other, accompanied by the text “Arm Yourself…with a slouchy bag”.

Fairey claims that his commercial work is all part of his wider ‘manifesto’ and that his “campaign exists in harmony with, not contrary to, conspicuous consumption… The ultimate success of giant [Fairey’s signature design] is commercial embrace because this demonstrates that the unaware consumer, as opposed to the hipster in on the joke, has been subversively indoctrinated.” But is Fairey’s commercial work really the ‘coup’ that he believes it to be? Is his work really subverting the advertising industry, or is it the other way around?

Fairey’s work for big brands could be seen as him being co-opted into the hegemonic culture and in fact becoming an agent of the status quo.

Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci devised a concept he called hegemony to explain the continued success of the capitalist system. In a nutshell, according to Gramsci, capitalism continues to thrive because even those exploited by it consent to their own subordination by internalising the hegemonic values, beliefs and culture as their own. The hegemonic culture – which in our age is consumer capitalism – achieves this not by being monolithic, but instead by constantly adapting to new threats and challenges, in order to maintain its dominant position.

There are two related processes by which it does this. The first is to assimilate dissident cultural elements – think of subversive subcultures like punk, rap, even graffiti – into the mainstream culture, predominantly by commodifying them and thereby absorbing them into the consumerist system. The second is to co-opt leading dissident voices by offering them prominent positions of power within the status quo.

Shepard Fairey, Sweet Toof

The commercial success of Fairey’s art and his own position as an entrepreneur is arguably an embodiment of these two processes. As Fairey’s work is both a product of street art culture (formerly an explicitly subversive act) and employing revolutionary symbolism, its commodification is effectively assimilating both of these dissident elements into the status quo. Further, Fairey’s work for big brands could be seen as him being co-opted into the hegemonic culture and in fact becoming an agent of the status quo; whereby he assimilates revolutionary symbolism and reduces it to an advert used to sell products. Clearly, he is aware of the tension between the symbolism of his work and the commercial element of some it, but just by being aware of it and theorising to the contrary, doesn’t diminish the process of hegemonic assimilation which he is complicit in.

His other defence of his commercial work is that he has to make money somehow and that he puts the funds back into his non-commercial ventures. This is of course true, artists, like the rest of us, have to eat. But his other means of making a living by selling his work, or clothing bearing his designs, or even doing album covers seem less problematic than doing advertising for Pepsi. Many artists do corporate work and it’s not really a big deal if it’s consistent with their message. The problem for Fairey is that his work derives its power and meaning from the revolutionary symbolism it employs. If P.Diddy did a Coke advert, few people would raise an eyebrow or be troubled by it; his music primarily derives its power and meaning from consumerism. If an anti-establishment group, like Dead Prez did a Coke advert, it would be so much more problematic, because their music’s meaning and power come from sedition. There’s also the issue of the amount made. With a reported net worth of $15 million, Fairey could definitely afford not to do commercial work, and he still wouldn’t starve.

The act of appropriation only becomes truly problematic when the appropriator is doing so from an empowered subject position.

Another criticism of Fairey’s work is that it is little more than barefaced plagiarism. In his defence, the act of remixing or recontextualising cultural products is an integral part of hip hop culture, which gave rise to contemporary street art. The cut and mix aesthetic is in and of itself not too problematic: “when I’m using someone else’s work as a reference point, I’m just trying to give them props,” says Fairey. He also points out that he paid royalties to both the Zapatistas for his use of Subcomandante Marcos and the estate of René Mederos, a Cuban artist whose work Fairey made an almost facsimile of. However, the latter was only paid once the estate contacted him, which implies he has appropriated many more images without paying royalties.

The act of appropriation only becomes truly problematic when the appropriator is doing so from an empowered subject position. Fairey, as a privileged, wealthy artist should be aware of how unethical it may be to harvest the work of people less fortunate than himself, especially if providing no credit or recompense and making money himself from it. The fact that he has actually sought legal action against other artists who have modified his work, also seems to undermine his position in this regard.

So how do we make sense of the work of Shephard Fairey? It’s not easy, not least because he seems to be such a contradiction. He threw his artistic and financial might behind Barrack Obama’s Presidential Campaign on one hand, and then offered his support for the Occupy Movement on the other. His work appears to critique ‘conspicuous consumption’ whilst at the same time has been used to sell products for a luxury department store.

Ultimately, it matters little what Fairey says or does, what is really significant is the meanings which are inscribed upon his work in the wider context; how people engage with it and what it means to them. The primary meaning of his commercial work is always likely to be one of pro-consumption – buy this product. His murals, post ups and other work might empower the disenfranchised and undermine the status quo. However, there is a danger that the more that his commercial work is associated with the former, the less effectively the rest of his work will communicate the latter. Is his work telling us to obey or not? Perhaps only time will tell.

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