E Pluribus Ambiguity

"As an artist I do not think that we truly invent anything at this point."

– Blek LeRat

The artwork of Shepard Fairey is a popular topic here at gnovis. The instances in which Fairey and his project have emerged in our talks left an "itch" about him and his body of work.

I came to know Fairey’s work after he’d already achieved a good measure of success, which probably facilitated my reaction when I first saw Fairey’s OBEY images and recognized them as such on a series of tee-shirts. I found the forceful reverse psychology a little… obvious? And they were everywhere.

The commodified, Urban Outfitters cool that permeated his screen prints, posed a bothersome contradiction, at least in my mind, to Fairey’s implicit subversive message to dis-OBEY.

This specific contradictory aspect of Fairey’s work is what has irked me a bit.

On a strictly intellectual level, I feel like it makes little sense to have this reaction to an artist whose entire ethos, by his own estimation, centers on calling out the culture of conspicuous consumption in which we exist, obviating its mechanisms.

The problematic points of contention that are obvious to many who
critique Fairey’s work, are so easily explained away by his heady
philosophical manifestos.

Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see something that is right before their eyes but obscured. The obey giant sticker campaign attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. The sticker has no meaning, but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning.

When Fairey began the accidental OBEY campaign, he adopted the empty signifier of Andre the Giant, a relatively unknown wrestling figure, randomly cadged from an athletic subculture. Fairey then refashioned the Andre image and deployed it in an ambiguous graphical context, and reproduced ad infinitum, what became the defining image of Fairey’s campaign.

The Andre image gained a vitality that proved to infiltrate seemingly all corners of our image centered culture, which reaffirms the essential thesis of Fairey’s project– in short, image really is everything.

BUT I don’t really understand how Fairey justifies recontextualizing images so directly
from prior artists in a less than obvious way. And I don’t mean iconic,
propagandistic images that are in the public imaginary. Fairey has
reappropriated images from lesser known artists.

This doesn’t sit well with critics and fans of Fairey, particularly in the case of his enevelope pushing adoption of third party images. More recently, Fairey’s overt support of Barack Obama has raised significant questions.

This is essentially a futile. There is a range of available theoretical justifications for such practices rooted in post modern concepts like hybridity and reappropriation, which seem to be the standard response from people in the art world faced with questions regarding Fairey’s tendency to reappropriate images without asking whether the creator might like notification, never mind if s/he’d like the choice to grant permision for others to use such images.

As Fairey says in a recent NPR interview: "That’s always been my style," Fairey says. "I don’t get permission, I just do it."

There is a long line of 20th century art movements from which
Shepard’s sort of routinized, commercialized iconic imagery follows. If
one calls Fairey’s ouvre into question regarding authenticity, one
necessarily invokes scrutiny of pop art in general, such as Andy Warhol who emplyed a similar process of screen printing commercialized images to exploit their iconography.

Both artists seek to reclaim images cadged from a commercialized context and re-present that iconography in a manner that places the process and the symbology in a critical light. Both artists utilize images, whether of soup cans, or authoritarian leaders, in a way that destabilizes their entrenched meaning, intended to elicit a very specific effect in a given context.

Both Warhol and Fairey sought to provoke an effect other than what was originally intended. Fairey and Warhol both engage the world of fine art, while they simultaneously question its dominance.

Powerful and seductive images have historically been used for a variety
of reasons, some noble, some sinister, some both, depending on
subjective interpretation. 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.


Fairey posits
how the "keeping it real" insistence on a sense of authenticity that immediately dismisses commercialism out of hand as somehow inauthentic, is a bogus ideal that doesn’t encompass the realities of an artist trying to make a living as an artist in the current market. He answers the question of authenticity and audience, "The only thing that I feel uncomfortable with is people’s assumptions about it."

I tend to agree in terms of commercializing his work. Simply because an artist is capitalizing on her/his project, even if it is a politically or socially subversive idea, does not invalidate those objectives because s/he is being compensated for that work. While monetary compensation raises the specter of compromising integrity, that does not necessarily mean such compromises are being made.

As Fairey intimates, one has to make a living. The need to achieve some level of success and to gain a profit, which few emerging artists can actually claim to achieve, is not only for one’s livelihood, but also to fund the less popular projects that fail to attract sponsors. But I still don’t agree with Fairey’s use of genuine artwork produced by others without at least recognizing them in some way. In a digital world, this could certainly be done at least on the ObeyGiant website.