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Shepard Fairey: Idiot or Art World Bad Boy?

So I woke up this morning thinking about this venue of artblogging, and I came upon the article in the NY Times about Shepard Fairey confessing to a copyright violation for using an AP image in his famous “Obama Hope” poster. Of course I, like everyone else in America is familiar with the poster and image. But the artist, I wasn’t so familiar with, at least I thought.

But then I recalled taking a photo of an interesting installation in a window in Chelsea a few weeks back. The image (seen above) was of boy-band looking thugs in a graphic, silk screened, monochromatic etching style. These otters were striking a pose holding weapons against a floral patterned designed wallpaper. The image was very sexy, so I thought that it may be interesting to keep track of the artist.

In the bottom right corner, was that familiar stencil, the one plastered and spray painted all over the country. I’ve since learned that the image is of Andre the Giant. When I first moved to NY a number of years back, I would see it everywhere. And I really hated it. It was not particularly attractive, and it was so over-exposed, it seemed to me that some no-talent hack was doing his very best to try and gain some notoriety.

New York is plastered with graffiti. It’s one of the things New York is known for. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Rudolph Giuliani had almost all of New York stripped of it, and there is a law in place now that puts the responsibility of cleaning it up on the owners of the establishment who get tagged. I’m certain that there is a loop hole somewhere in the law that allows for some of the quality graffiti (probably a permit and payment to the city.) But for the most part, the city has been stripped clean.

So when I would see these Andre The Giant stencils all over the city, I thought, who is this hack who has stenciled this crappy image all over the place? I certainly didn’t recognize Andre the Giant in the image, and even if I did, who cares (no offense to Andre’s loved ones, but seriously.) I’ve seen some amazing graffiti around the city. These days, the most impressive celebration of graffiti can be seen on the 7 train, as you head toward PS1 from Manhattan.

Graffiti artists, taggers, are true artists. The do their work under the cover of night. They work with the laws against them.  In New York, spray paint is locked up behind the counter. Taggers do their work over days, weeks, and months, adding a little bit more to their illegal public murals. And in many cases, the work is spectacular. Some are art school grads, but for the most part they are self taught. The each have their own pseudonyms, and special signature icon, and generally a signature style.

By comparison to real graffiti art, Andre the Giant’s image was crap.

So when the Obama Hope poster first came out, I thought that it was appropriately generic and perfect for the audience.  It was immediately accessible and the image was obviously appropriated. Perhaps I had seen it before because I’m an NY Times online junkie, but I could have seen that image anywhere before the poster came out. It even crossed my mind when I first saw it that there must have been some association with it to the original image, because it was clearly using an image that was out in the public sphere.

When I heard that the poster was winning accolades, again, I thought that it seems like a misguided attempt to raise some unknown self-made artist-next-door onto the wave of Obama’s populist movement. The most original aspect to it is the word “hope” which, while appropriate for the cause, didn’t seem so incredibly profound. Bush was gone, regardless of whomever won.

In analyzing the poster, obviously the Obama campaign had already been branded, as seen in the button Obama is wearing in the poster. The colors chosen were orange-red, white, and cyan, which I guess is in interesting twist on the classic red-white-and-blue. So “hope” was the most ingenious aspect of this poster? I think that the logo design is genius. But the poster seemed very bland.

So in reading the article, apparently Shepard Fairey claimed to have used a completely different image, and counter-sued the AP, who had sued him for copyright violation. He went as far as referencing a different image, and creating development sketches, after the fact, to bolster the claim.

Dude, are you serious? Do you really take us all for idiots?

For graphic designers, (as he is, and I am) copyright is an issue from the start. The whole existence of graphic designers is based on the work of other peoples words. We are hired to take those words, and display them in a fashion most easy for viewers to read, comprehend, and absorb.  Surprisingly, it is quite a lot of work. And the better the graphic designer, the less work it appears the designer has done.  Because it is our job to make the words and ideas pop. So Shepard Fairey definitely has great graphic design skills.

But as graphic designers we are constantly challenged by the decision, especially in today’s world of easy access to images, to either purchase stock imagery or create it ourselves. Custom photography or illustration can takes weeks to perfect. Selecting a group of stock images, manipulating them in Photoshop, and having the client choose one, cuts out an incredible amount of work. The cost of stock imagery is so much cheaper than the process of presenting concept sketches and completing the rendering. In other words, copyright is always a the forefront of any designers consciousness. So who did he think that he was kidding?

There were options that Fairey could have chosen to argue his use of the image.

The first would be oversight.  Oops, I meant to pay for the images, but in my business, I forgot. What do I owe you? Please sir, don’t gouge me, I’m a starving artist. I’m not sure of the order of events, but if he already was getting recognition, it would have been easy, and possibly gone under the radar.

Or he could have argued that it was a form of Appropriation art, a movement widely recognized in the art world as conceptual art.

Most of my conceptual artworks reveal themselves only after I have made the work. I’ll think of an idea, begin production, work on it forever, complete it, hate it, and in hindsight realize, hey, this is what I was thinking about when I was doing this piece. So when people ask about its meaning later, It sounds like the concept was thought through before the work was executed. He may not have won the court case by arguing that it was a form of appropriation art, but it would have been a respectable argument.

Or perhaps he could have argued that the actual image he appropriated didn’t matter because the poster combined enough new content that it was a wholly new work. Again, not sure that it would have won the case, but an understandable crossing of a fine line where you didn’t think that you crossed.

No, instead, he went down the path of morons. The path that promised the greatest humiliation, and at the greatest cost to his reputation. I’m sure there is a parable about this. If there isn’t there should be.

Perhaps it’s not all bad. I’m writing about it. And now I know who he is. I think that he’s an idiot. You know what they say, the worst press is no press. I’m not sure that is true in the case where you look like a total loser.  But I do love his images of boy-band otters pretending to be bad boys.

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