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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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This morning a group of us went to see the Shepard Fairey retrospective at the ICA in Boston. Having lived through the viral spread of Andre the Giant and the OBEY stickers and stencils in Boston and Providence, I had a preconceived idea about what it would be like to see his work assembled in the formality of an indoor gallery space. My expectations were low, I’ll be honest. Street artists, from Bansky to Os Gemeos, have achieved a very particular kind of cultural significance. But my curiosity and acknowlegement of their work were not bucketed with my personal artistic practices or intentions. Heavily iconized and graphic in nature, Fairey and his cohorts were using visual forms for a different set of intentions than I am employing with my work. Street art is political. Ironic. Cryptic. Sarcastic. All valid projects in and of themselves, but that’s not the program I’m watching in my studio.

The show at the ICA changed my view utterly. Shepard, while holding on to his populist and political roots, is a master collagist. The murals on display are layered and complex, full of innuendo and suggestion. I felt my resistance collapse into those surfaces immediately. His immense murals have gorgeous texturing with layers of newspapers, wallpaper, and recycled imagery, an amazingly delicate backdrop to his fist thrusting imagery.

The controversy around Fairey’s catapult from street artist to a museum retrospective—and around Fairey himself—is just so much added theatricity, although the meta of the meta is too ironic at times to not comment on. (Example: In these rooms full of “appropriated” images—many of them in litigation as I write this—visitors are not allowed to take any pictures of the works. And Shepard was arrested last night for two outstanding warrants as he arrived to DJ his show opening. Which of course could be a stunt in and of itself. Once again, the meta of the meta…) Putting aside all the Obama flywheel fame and urban legending around Fairey’s guerilla art tactics, Fairey is doing something extraordinary visually. He has found his way onto that fragile parapet between mass appeal and museum-quality (read: elitist) work. Between political content and a fresh and memorable aesthetic statement. Between an art that is detached and emotionally cool and one that is deeply engrossing and emotionally engaged.

From an interview with Fairey in the New York Times:

“I’m a populist,” Mr. Fairey said in an interview with a portrait gallery curator. “I’m trying to reach as many people as possible.”

“I love the concept in fine art of making a masterpiece, something that will endure,” he said, adding that he understood, too, how unlikely that is for anyone. “But I also understand how short the attention span of most consumers is and that you really need to work with the metabolism of consumer culture a lot of the time to make something relevant within the zeitgeist.”

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Included in the documentation for the show is Fairey’s 1990 statement about his work. Worth a read even nine years later:

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 be 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.

The ICA is free on Thursday nights starting at 5:30. If you live in the Boston area, don’t miss this show.

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