The Respectability of Selling Out

If you’ve been with us awhile, you might remember that I’ve ranted a bit before about Shepard Fairey’s “obey” product line. His “Andre the Giant has a posse” and “Obey Giant” stickers started as a funky art project and grew into a guerilla marketing campaign for a clothing line sold through overpriced urban boutiques.

From an visually aesthetic standpoint, I’ve always enjoyed his art style, and so it has kind of bugged me that he has billed his work as politically subversive, encouraging reflection on speech and oppression. (Seriously, see quotes from the post linked above.) It’s really hard to make a “power to the people” claim when “the people” need to find a specialty store and shell out fifty bucks for the right to wear your political art in public—especially when plenty of the pieces in your clothing line feature no discernible visual or textual statements beyond a tiny “Obey” label over the pocket that might as well say “Stüssy” or “Volcom” for all that its fashion-conscious wearers care.

And this is why I am glad that Shepard Fairey is going legit.

Perhaps it began when he started making an income doing guerilla marketing projects for big-name (and undisclosed-name) clients. Even then, though, he claimed that was just a way to fund his art projects. More recently, however, I started spotting his Obama posters in Philly shop windows and bus shelters. Today, I read that he has designed the covers for upcoming editions of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. They look excellent.

Clearly, there’s still a political bent to his work. The difference now is that he’s getting openly paid by people with lots of money to do that work. He is not trying to claim that he went into bookstores and forcibly redid the covers for classic novels. He is not trying to claim that he went around bus shelters, replaced ads with campaign posters, and shouted “This shit is ill!” (as far as I know).

I appreciate this. It’s not that I think the world has no place for subversive artwork—as the aforementioned post, which is half about Banksy, indicates—but that I think people should do what they’re good at and be honest about what they’re doing.

The political statements Shepard Fairey is designing for now represent modest goals. Seeing his Obama poster made me realize that. I’m so used to seeing his artwork implying a “this will change the world” message that seeing it on a campaign poster made me think: If this guy gets elected, he will just be a president. He might be a pretty good president, and he’d pretty much have to be better than the one we’ve got, and that alone represents “hope” and “progress” as far as I’m concerned. But the president can only do so much, and I’m not sure how much more likely Obama is than any other potential president to save the world and our people. Still, nice poster, hope the fellow gets elected. A modest goal.

There’s something to be said for modest goals, though. George Orwell’s 1984 is one of my favorite books of all time. It was formative in the way I think about politics, art, writing, and the media. I read it in high school because it was assigned to me, but let’s face it: Not everyone reads what gets assigned to them in school. We do judge books by their covers, and putting a pretty sweet-looking cover on a book means more people are likely to read it. Giving people the tools to change how they think may sound like pretty slow work, but it’s something.

Most impressive to me, though, is that the work linked here represents an abandonment of the egotism of the art world. Shepard Fairey is doing good design for other people’s messages—people with modest goals, but admirable politics. I’ll take that any day over bleeding-edge work representing pie-in-the-sky politics.