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How phony is Shepard Fairey?

Posted by Dan Wasserman  February 2, 2009 03:49 PM

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BARACK-hope-POSTER-1.jpgShepard Fairey is the artist who designed the now ubiquitous Obama HOPE poster, the semi-official iconic image of the candidate. A one-man show of his work opens Feb. 6 (members reception Feb. 4) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Hailed as the poster boy of contemporary poster boys, and closely associated with the Obama victory, Fairey is riding a wave of positive publicity. But some observers say the self-described "street artist" is really a graphic pickpocket, helping himself to the work of others without credit.

Perhaps the most articulate and pointed critic is Los Angeles artist Mark Vallen who has posted an essay entitled, "Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey."

Vallen makes a strong case that Fairey appropriates, without attribution, the images and designs of other artists. He posts multiple examples, including art from the Czechoslvakian Prague Spring, art from the Industrial Workers of the World, Cuban poster art of the 60s and this example (left) directly copying the art nouveau drawing of Koloman Moser (1868-1918) (right).
Fairey seems at ease with his borrowing. In the 450-page catalog for the ICA show, he responds: "This guy Mark Vallen found every reference in every poster and every t-shirt that I've ever used. Out of hundreds of images, there's a dozen or so that were based on things from historical posters. First of all, I'm always assuming that these posters are known by people, so my referencing is not a big secret. These aren't obscure images... Usually I'm using an image as an intentional reference." But his art itself makes no mention of its sources or derivative nature, and, contrary to Fairley's assertions, much of the art he copies (like Moser's) is not famous enough to be well-known to most of his audience. Cartoonists often borrow images or characters from older creators. But when they insert Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote or Charles Schulz's Lucy in a drawing, they acknowledge the reference with a line like "Apologies to Charles Schulz."

I understand that we live in a world of rampant sampling and remixing, but claiming to be hip or leftist is not an excuse for ripping off other creators. It's not even fundamentally a legal issue (though it may be that as well) -- it's respect for other artists. And the argument that the art is "transformative," so no nod to the original is necessary, is a weak one. In a similar context, photographers have lambasted Richard Prince who takes photos of others' photography and sells the derivative pictures as his own. Jim Krantz, whose photos Prince has appropriated, said: "My whole issue with this, truly, is attribution and recognition. It's an unusual thing to see an artist who doesn't create his own work, and I don't understand the frenzy around it. If I italicized 'Moby-Dick,' then would it be my book? I don't know. But I don't think so."

It's not a big surprise that Fairey is dismissive of this critique. His thinking is as cut-and-paste as his artwork. He inveighs against the depredations of consumer culture, but his design firm works on a "Want It!" campaign for Saks Fifth Avenue. He wants the street cred of a revolutionary artist extolling freedom fighters and quoting Noam Chomsky while doing "guerrilla" marketing campaigns for Netscape and Pepsi.

A street agitator or a self-promoting adman? Decide for yourself. The ICA show runs through August 16. It's appropriately titled, "Supply and Demand."

UPDATE 2/4 Here are a few more links that might be of interest. Fairey collaborator Jamie O'Shea comes to Fairey's defense against Vallen's criticism in an editorial posted on Supertouch. Brian Sherwin replies to O'Shea at And here's a New York Times article on Fairey's design work for Saks Fifth Avenue. Thanks to the commenters who passed these links along.

UPDATE 2/5 The Associated Press wants credit and compensation for the Manny Garcia photograph that Fairey copied for his Obama HOPE poster. Stayed tuned for further episodes of fair use vs. Fairey's use.

UPDATE 2/5 Matthew Reed Baker at Boston Daily describes the breathless reception for Fairey at the ICA opening and then defends Fairey's use of others' images. I think his argument hinges on the audience knowing Fairey's references, and many of them are so obscure that no average viewer would know that they weren't Fairey's creations.

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Dan Wasserman has been cartooning for the Globe editorial page since 1985. He has published two collections of drawings, "We've Been Framed" (Faber & Faber, 1987) and "Paper Cuts" (Ivan R. Dee, 1995). His cartoons are widely reprinted and are syndicated internationally by Tribune Media Services. He draws more quickly than he types.