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Shepard Fairey: Notes Toward an Affirmative Art
Edward Morris, 27 Mar 09

In the 1980s, about the time Shepard Fairey took up skateboarding in a big way, Abigail Solomon Godeau published an article called “The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style.” The article was later published in a book called The Contest of Meaning that probably had some currency at the Rhode Island School of Design when Fairey was a student there.

In her article, Godeau relates the tragic tale of the Russian Constructivists. These somber men “disclaimed all aesthetic intent and instead defined [themselves] as instrumental in nurturing a new collective consciousness.” The ringleader of the group, Alexander Rodechenko, didn’t pull any punches. “Art has no place in modern life,” he wrote.

Yet, as Godeau narrates, in no time at all the image-making strategies of the Constructivists were adopted by the very bourgeois culture in Western Europe and the United States against which the group ardently hoped to inspire rebellion, and today their style continues to turn up everywhere in advertising and art (see recent Virgin Airlines ads, for example).

The lesson learned from this tale, according to Godeau, is that “no art practice has yet proved too intractable, subversive or resistant to be assimilated sooner or later into the cultural mainstream.” And that brings us to Fairey and his show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Fairey himself is a prolific user of Russian Construcvist imagery, sometimes going so far as to incorporate the old revolutionary images wholesale into his designs. Yet, of course, Fairey is no Constructivist himself. Rather, he is an avowed DE-constructivist. He is very explicit about this as two quotes from his website demonstrate:

1) “My work uses people, symbols, and people as symbols to deconstruct how powerful visuals and emotionally potent phrases can be used to manipulate and indoctrinate.”

2) “There is no specific political affiliation behind what I do, only the philosophy ‘question everything...’”

And the helpful curators from the ICA are only too eager to back Fairey up on this, employing a battery of ready-made art-world cliches to describe the work. It blurs lines! It is complex! It is carefully made! It questions! It’s like Andy Warhol!

So what then are we to make of the most famous image in the room -- the “Hope” image of Obama?

The curators seem almost defensive about it. They offer this carefully worded excuse: “Throughout his career, Shepard Fairey’s portraits of policitical leaders have often questioned [there’s that word again!] the authority that those figures exercise. Fairey’s image of Barack Obama is the first instance in which the artist chose to depict a contemporary political figure in order to support his campaign.” [Italics mine].

Ok, that is technically true because of the qualifiers “political” and “contemporary” and “campaign.” But actually Fairey has made many images that are essentially hagiographic, that inspire respect or admiration or action and that do not question or challenge the authority of the figure depicted, that on the contrary posit a different sort of authority, the sort of authority that Fairey endorses. Take a second look at his images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (which has the words “rise above” written on it) or Joe Strummer or Henry Rollins or Angela Davis. The respect he has for these figures is palpable and communicable. They are powerful images. And there is no shame in their positivity. Fairey does not really want us to question everything. And why should he?

Fairey has been receiving a lot of critical attention recently and not all has been positive. Some of that negative attention is stupid and even vindictive. (Fairey is not plagarizing or stealing! Get with the program on appropriation art, ok!). But some is justified, particularly when taken as a statement of concern rather than pure criticism.

Fairey has crossed a Rubicon of sorts now that he has been fully museumified, has been employed to make bags for Saks Fifth Avenue, and seen his images, most notably the Obama image, so fully “assimilated into the mainstream.” Godeau implies that the prime consequence of such assimilation is the loss of subversive power.

Indeed, that loss of power is palpable. I recall encountering a Fairey display on the street weeks before I knew that he would be coming to the ICA. It was a wall of images placed on the boards of a store that had recently gone under. It was thrilling and, yes, subversive: it seemed like it might be advertising for a new store, but on closer inspection seemed more like a grave. It had legitimate punk rock energy. I contrast that to the feeling I have seeing Fairey’s work on the street now (which happens nearly every day in Harvard Square). I just think to myself, “Oh that is an extension of the Fairey show (yawn) at the ICA.” You can feel the title of Godeau’s piece actuated here: Armed Vision Disarmed…from Weapon to Style.

I don’t know if this is inevitable. For one thing, Fairey could do a hell of a lot better than the enervated presentation at the ICA, with its two little token graffitied newspaper dispensers in the lobby and a bunch of framed pictures in neat grids in the galleries.

But more importantly than that, it is time for Fairey to come out from behind the worn curtain of the deconstructionists. Obey his hope. Shelve the Derrida and pick up Bruno Latour and Slavoj Zizek. What Fairey has always been good at is “nurturing a new collective consciousness” – that good ole Constructivist aim. His Andre the Giant images (pictured top left) were successful because they were popular, because they created an identity for those who recognized it, forging the shadow of new collective consciousness. Now he is sought after by Saks Fifth Avenue and others for the very reason that he is able to galvanize interest in an attitude, a way of being, a product, a candidate.

If Fairey is going to continue to have punk rock vitality (and if you don’t believe he ever had it, check out the videos at the ICA show), then he may need to surf a new wave that is breaking in art and art criticism. That wave has to do with merging the nuanced and the affirmative; the questioning and the organizing; the nothing and the everything. The new movement is constructive and Fairey can rock it, but not if he allows himself to get bullied by the formidable art market (including the ICA) which is saying what it says about his work so that it can pawn it off on yesterday’s fools.

The following image of Fairey’s called Evolve to Devolve is what I am talking about. It is a potent image about climate change/sustainability and, perhaps, the sign of substantive things to come from Fairey. The image is apocylaptic and utopian; affirmative and subversive; dawn and dusk. All at once:


Edward Morris is the co-founder of The Canary Project and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The Canary Project produces visual media and artworks that deepen public understanding of climate change and energize commitment to solutions. Morris was formerly a partner at the James Mintz Group, an international investigative firm.

All images credit: Shepard Fairey

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The Constructivist answer was to devote themselves to industrial and graphic design; mass-producing the change. A highly worldchanging example, I think. Lyubov Popova said that none of her achievements had been quite as satisfying as seeing a peasant woman buying a bolt of one of her fabrics to make a dress.

Posted by: Alex on 30 Mar 09

See also Walter Benjamin, "The Artist as Producer" on this point. Maybe I'll blog about that next.

Posted by: Edward Morris on 31 Mar 09

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