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I have received quite a few emails about my earlier posting on Shepard Fairey. Seems to me that Fairey has come to embody the complexities of a whole slew of third rail issues—image appropriation, intellectual property rights, public arts by decree or default, the acceptable limits of “going commercial”, artist as deviant and miscreant, institutional co-option, freedom of expression, private property, tagging. The list goes on. But what really surprises me is that I find the conversation getting more interesting, not less.

Sebastian Smee wrote a piece about Fairey in the Sunday Boston Globe. As usual, he has some worthwhile insights, certainly a few of which are worth sharing here.

The truth is, though Fairey may have been arrested 14 . . . make that 15 . . . times for putting his work in the public domain, he is no longer a radical, if ever he was. He has a thriving business. “If you work hard and are industrious,” he has said, “you can create your own Utopian way of doing things under capitalism.”

At bottom, he is a graphic artist, in love with the graphic potential of imagery – its force, its seductiveness, its impact.

Those who see him as a sellout find his use of nostalgic images of Che Guevara, Lenin, and Martin Luther King as pathetically regressive – a surrender to clichéd imagery that has already been co-opted, aestheticized, and commercialized.

Fair enough. I also find a lot of Fairey’s posturing lame, his images overprocessed, like mass-produced cheese. But I would give him more credit than that.

You only need to look at the spheres of comics and animation, fashion, album art, Web design, and DJing to see that young people today are incredibly savvy about appropriations. Irony – a lot of it extremely intelligent irony – is at play everywhere.

In the case of political art like Fairey’s, the movement from quotation to nostalgia to commercialism is not a one-way street. What is, on the face of it, “radical chic,” or wistful nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of, say, the Cuban revolution – can also be bracingly contemporary, gaining force from the borrowed image but adding wised-up street smarts: “No way would we be so naively idealistic, or historically dumb, as to believe the things Che believed,” such appropriations can imply, “but we still admire his ardor, and cling to the idea that meaningful change is possible.”

Fairey is so hot right now because his Obama image crystallized a moment of change in a democratic, but deeply divided, society. It helped shape, or at least reflect, a new public consciousness.

Does his image have disconcerting associations with Soviet-style graphics? Why, yes. But most people understand that such references come with a wink and a wry smile. And a smile can change everything.

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