Shepard Fairey: Rebel With A Cause
And as the invitation pleads, they came out in throngs, "…with music, performance and a message that the people of this country - not the banks, not the corporations - hold the true power." He continues, "Participate in a stunning moment expressing hope and a new vision for the future - and showing our solidarity with the people who have already been occupying Wall Street for weeks."
The graphic is reminiscent of 1960's Black Power, featuring an image of an African American woman sporting an afro and staring hopefully into the heavens. As editor of the art blog Hyperallergic Hrag Vartanian told WNYC, "I think it’s really great that it’s an upward looking positive image, as well as it tries to tie together a little bit of the radicalism of the 60’s with today."
But Vartanian is also underscoring a critique that many skeptics of Occupy Wall Street are bringing to the conversation, and that's that no one, not even the most vocal of OWS protesters, has a handle on what that blissful utopia up in the sky would entail down here in America.
As for Fairey, he's just happy that the conversation is even happening. As an artist, an activist, and a man whose veins are coursing with a potent mixture of spray paint and butane, he thrust his weight behind the movement. Long before the invitation came on the scene though, it was clear Fairey had ignited the OWS artists with his iconic elements. Posters distributed by Occupy Together are filled with his seminal red and black, framing sunbursts and tongue-and-cheek plays on familiar faces. Whether they're cognizant of it or not, Fairey's stylings have permeated the artistic language of a restless generation.
While he has yet to join the ranks of occupiers filling "The Village" behind L.A. City Hall--some of which say they've officially changed their address to the government building--he's funneling in the resources his notoriety affords him. OWS has appropriated some of his recent imagery for the movement, like posters of Reagan and Nixon's pealing faces, with signs that read "LEGISLATIVE INFLUENCE FOR SALE" and "TOP-ELITE FASCHIONS FOR SALE." In turn, Fairey made the images available for free download on his website ObeyGiant.com. What's more, he says he's been doing "a bit of clandestine imagery dissemination himself." After all, he says, when it comes down to it, artistic activism is about the physical manifestations that make the movement tangible.
Fairey, who calls himself a "patriot" and a "capitalist," fears America is in the throes of what Noam Chomsky coined the "Spectator Democracy."
"[The average person] may feel so powerless that they don't even vote," he said, "and if they do vote, they feel like it doesn't make much of a difference. But I think for groups to organize and say, 'We're here, we matter, and we're going to vote in a way that may not be good for you if you don't acknowledge our presence and address our needs,'… We need that. That's democracy.
"These people are saying, 'We can't rely on Obama, we need to just take it to the streets and express our needs and hope that the powers that be listen.'"
Can't rely on Obama? The statement merits a double-take coming from the man whose single image triggered a generation to rally like they hadn't in decades for a candidate who they thought just might have been able to make it happen. After all, try describing Fairey to anyone outside of the realm of the Sex Pistols, Urban Outfitters, MoCA, or the great fair use debate, and you'll undoubtedly resort to, "You know, the Obama 'HOPE' guy."
But three years later, Fairey (who took a literal beating this summer for being what one Copenhagen native called "The Obama Illuminati") has no reservations about calling the subject of his magnum opus a major disappointment.
Speaking to a crowd of some 700 listeners at USC's "Revolution with Shepard Fairey" on Wednesday night, he remembered what sparked him during the campaign days.
"Someone came along who I thought could take us in the right direction, who had ideas that were antithetical to the Bush administration," he said. "That was Obama. Ralph Nader doesn't have a chance, nor do a lot of people that I like. Their ideas wouldn't resonate broadly enough. He was a different kind of candidate."
"I do feel disillusioned," he said in an interview with Neon Tommy. He speaks deliberately and with a conviction all his own, "I knew that Obama was not the magic bullet, that he couldn't do it by himself." That said, he didn't expect the conviction or potency of the president, activist groups, or the supportive populace to evaporate so quickly.
First 750 posters. Then 1,000. Eventually, the grassroots effort amounted to half a million posters canvasing the world with the red, white and blue "deracialized" image of the candidate that could. Now, even in the eyes of his most vehement advocate, whom according to the New York Times he owes the vast majority of credit for his election, Obama just might be the president that didn't.
"I've been disappointed in his pre-compromising and his lack of effectiveness," Fairey told the audience after a quip that they might not have seen the graphic before. "He's so intelligent and into the nuanced debate, a dialogue with all points of view, including the treasonous Right who sabotages everything he does. That should have been an asset, but it's been ineffective. He should have recognized that three or four months in."
Whether or not the image has lost its impact is up for debate, but one thing is certain: it's an American icon. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker called the poster "the most efficacious American political illustration since "Uncle Sam Wants You." Appropriation controversies aside, the "HOPE" poster now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, which counts Fairey among the artists who have shaped our culture, and whose work tells the definitive American story.
A punk rock aficionado since his teen years, Fairey grew up in Charleston, South Carolina--"not the most progressive place"--as the son of the head cheerleader and the captain of the football team. He gives credence to bands like Dead Kennedys and The Clash for giving him his cultural and creative outlook, and for stirring him to question authority and the status quo.
He got his start working at a skate shop for $4.25 an hour, where he started covertly screen-printing his "Team Shed" t-shirts and mixing them in with the merchandise to make a profit. He'd make stencils for the family's beat-up station wagon, a small but soon-to-be-significant eschewal from his parents pleas to focus on school and sports.
He attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was overcome with an "everything's already been done" kind of attitude, sure he wouldn't be able to make an impact. Then came the image that started it all: on a scrap of paper, he used an ad for wrestling at the Providence Civic Center to teach his roommate how to make a print. (On the back of this most crucial original document, by the way, the roommate later scrawled, "Shep, I swiped two enchiladas from work. Feel free to heat them up. They're in the fridge.")
And then, Andre the Giant had a posse. The primitive image of a bovine amateur wrestler became the source of immense controversy. First in Providence, then the world. What started as a diversion between roommates began raising profound questions of how the public interprets images in the public space, something Fairey called a manifestation of Edmund Husserl's "Phenomenology," an idea that later became a cornerstone of the artist's manifesto.
"I felt like it was a happy accident," he said. "Andre had the charm of being somebody who was really unusual looking; kinda goofy, kinda scary. There was this Rorschach-like range of interpretations and perceptions of this graphic. I was fascinated. I like that he couldn't be pigeon-holed. He was Orwellian. Big Brother was watching you."
Along with references to George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, the presentation was packed with references to Jasper Johns and Norman Rockwell, to Barbara Kruger and Robbie Conal, to the Marshall McLuhan adage, "The Medium is the Message." This half-hunched, anxiously gesturing guy in the tattered denim jacket was making it clear that he's not just an iconographer; he's an intellectual.
But at the end of the day, Fairey wanted it to be clear to the audience of fanatic students, who after the talk rushed to have their posters and books signed as though Fairey had just scored the winning touchdown in a nail-biting championship football game, that he is an artist. He engages with topical problems because he finds the art therapeutic, and sometimes that catharsis is just what the doctor ordered.
"Sometimes I have to take a few days off from watching the news because I feel like I'm going to have a nervous breakdown," he said. "When you feel so invested in what you believe in and it seems like there are forces that are encouraging a big segment of the population to act against their own best interests... [They're] not educated enough about the issues and [they're] being manipulated."
But his art is his raison d'être; he says he feels a responsibility and he couldn't stop if he tried.
"What's the other option? Just sit back and watch the world burn?"
Reach reporter Allegra Tepper here.
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