How to Pretend to Be Art

I have at times lamented that I think that some of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” designs—on posters, clothing, books, etc.—look kind of cool, but I can’t bring myself to pay for them. I have some kind of aversion to supporting that which is vaguely depoliticized and yet which claims to be highly political and irreverent. I used to think Shepard Fairey’s idea of mimicking ad messages in street art was kind of clever, and then I noticed that I see “Obey” logos and designs much more frequently on expensive designer clothing than on street corners. Generally I’m not inclined to accuse people of selling out because everybody’s got to make a buck, but if you strike the pose of a cultural revolutionary, I expect you to either hold it or find a new gig eventually.

This is a somewhat long-winded way of introducing an essay accusing Shepard Fairey of plagiarism and hackwork. I don’t necessarily agree with the essayist in all examples; “plagiarism” seems kind of a strong word for what plenty of artists consider “appropriation and recontextualization,” as the “Big Brother” example at the forefront of the essay seems to me. The writer acknowledges that “Despite some reservations I generally agree with that viewpoint—provided that such a process is completely transparent,” and yes, most of what follows is anything but. Most of these cases seem like Fairey just traced or copied artwork that he figured nobody would be likely to recognize.

Mostly, though, I wanted to link to this because I’m in agreement with the essay’s critique of Fairey’s depoliticized faux-critical stance, and the essayist makes the point more clearly and eloquently than I do. I’ll quote the final paragraph here because it ends on such a punchy (and, I believe, accurate) note, in case you can’t get read through something that’s almost entirely and inexplicably center-aligned:

If carefully examined, the rebellious patina and ersatz activism of Shepard Fairey’s art gives way to reveal little in the way of political imagination. Ultimately his work is the very embodiment of “radical chic”, bereft of historical memory and offering only feeble gestures, babbling incoherencies, and obscurantism as a challenge to the deplorable state of the world. Such an artist cannot provide us with a critical assessment of where we stand today.

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