Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Shepard Fairey: Rodchenko for the Obama Age

I was recently hanging out with some old college mates of mine, slumming it (which might be considered ironic if any of us made any money) and drinking down by the docks. We were right around the corner from the giant photocopier which is the Boston ICA so one of my friends suggests we all go over and check out the new Shepard Fairey show. Given that we all have BFA's we figure we have the right to waltz into any art institute, no matter how inebriated, and pontificate loudly on the works presented. So with this as our established aim we went to the show. Given that I find art to be a visual litmus test of where a culture stands within the eternal civilizational cycles described by Spengler, 'street art' and tagging (the human equivalent of territorial pissing) ranks pretty low as to where we are in history. This being said, I was prepared to be quite irritated by Fairey's work but found myself pleasantly surprised. By this I don't mean that the work was by any means 'good', rather that it was the best visual summation of the transparent liberal [non]politics touted by so many of my generation.

These days Fairey is best known for his Obama HOPE poster but his initial claim to fame was the 'Andre the Giant has a posse' stickers. The stickers are the perfect epitome of Gen Y graphic art as they combine media directed nostalgia ("hey remember that TV show?") with the Adbusters-esque undermining of advertising. Of course, like Adbusters, they aren't really undermining anything at all, and unlike actual advertising which is designed to sell some product which may or may not be of some use or enjoyment to the consumer, Fairey's Andre stickers sold nothing more than his career. But the stickers, like all modern art, once disseminated became subject to the same process of appropriation he was utilizing and so other young upstarts took his original formula and made something more interesting out of it. My personal favorite is shown below:

Fairey sees something inherently political in the way his works are shown. He is quoted here as saying:

"I consider myself a populist artist... I want to reach people through as many different platforms as possible. Street art is a bureaucracy-free way of reaching people, but T-shirts, stickers, commercial jobs, the Internet -- there are so many different ways that I use to put my work in front of people."

I would correct this statement by saying he is a mass artist rather than a populist. For myself and many others, populism implies a certain class analysis, one which recognizes that the interests of the power elite run in direct opposition to that of 'the people', i.e. those who operate and manage the means of production. It should go without saying that in the age of millionaires in sweatpants, there is nothing particularly radical about mass culture. It should also be noted that while Fairey's art may be bureaucracy-free, that doesn't mean that it cannot be used in the service of bureaucracy viz. the HOPE poster.

Fairey's works could be classified as a sort of commercial propaganda. The look is heavily indebted to the industrial arts (i.e. screen printing) rather than the fine arts and the subject matter is very straight forward, often ripped from news headlines and popular culture (the second Gulf war, New Left icons, hip hop and rock 'legends.') While there is nothing particularly odious or interesting about any of this, especially when one considers the fact that Pop art essentially broke the mold by using the same techniques and subject matter decades earlier and with much greater success, that Fairey and his supporters seem to view this work as 'consciousness raising' speaks very clearly about their intentions.

For one, the use of New Left icons in the 21st century is a bit questionable. Since the ascendancy of the 68ers to the ruling political class, the continual endorsement of these people, from Angela Davis to Che, as radicals (when even in their day a quick look at their politics revealed a putrid self righteousness and authoritarianism) has always been nothing more than establishment-sponsored radicalism, a safe outlet for young people to vent their frustrations at 'the system' while doing nothing to actively threaten its existence. It's the old trick of controlling the established order and the opposition that make a modern totalitarian system work so well.

Another element is the faux (or is it?) propaganda aesthetic, superficially reminiscent of Stalinist kitsch, which runs through all of Fairey's pieces from OBEY to HOPE. On the outset this all seems rather tongue in cheek, but the humorless HOPE poster of our current God-King just shows how quickly the illusion of irony can come tumbling down when an agenda needs to be put forth. The use of quasi-Stalinist aesthetics is itself very telling. As fellow blogspotter James O'Meara noted when replying to my post on the art world outrage at a Eurasianist artist winning the Kandinsky prize:

As you know, I continue to be fascinated/disgusted by the way Communist affiliations, up to Stalin himself, are treated as no big deal, or even entirely natural, while the slightest hint of "conservative" views is considered a dark stain. James Kalb is probably right: communists, however murderously extreme, are still arguing from the same premises as the media and academic types, which are identical to "reason itself" while to express Rightist views is to be seen as some kind of irrational monster, capable of any crime.

So here the double standard is revealed: the use of totalitarian chic is bad when in the service of ideas which are not approved of by the Atlanticist establishment, but fine when in the service of the Executive branch and their Nashi: Rock the Vote. This is why Fairey is "our" Rodchenko (though personally I find Rodchenko to have been a much better artist), a skilled visual propagandist whose job it is to make the establishment seem cool and radical. Reason #467 that were are witnessing liberal totalitarianism, the last of the Big 3.

As an addendum, I would like to add that Fairey's current legal problems stemming from his "populist" works are just another media generated farce designed to give the impression that he is current and cutting edge, i.e. the complete opposite of someone who would be a shill for the stuffy establishment. Vice magazine, despite it's habit of lauding a lot of lame shit considered hip, does a good job here highlighting the inherent obnoxiousness of 'street art.'

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