This was my first piece for the Pebble, back in November 2008. In the heat of Obama’s election fever, I cashed in on the comunal jubilation and wrote about street artist turned Graphic designer. I was pretty proud of myself at the time. Now I read it an see a ton of grammatical errors, but still very pleased with how it all came out.
Has Street Art Sold Out? Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’.
I am very happy that Barrack Obama has been voted in as the 44th President of the United States, and it appears I share these feelings with every other person I speak to about this hot topic. What is not as familiar is the street art propaganda poster, ‘unofficially’ used in his campaign, created by American Illustrator and Graphic artist Shepard Fairey, most famous for his Obey stickers. The use of the word ‘unofficial’ is debatable, primarily because Fairey approached the Obama cabinet to produce a poster for his campaign, not the other way around. However, the images Fairey produced supported rather than antagonised presidential politics and have now come to symbolize the future America (and the world) is looking for. But how was this done by an artist who’s style belongs to the street and still gets arrested for doing so? Has the common street artist sold his soul for commercialism?
The bulk of Fairey’s poster work is primarily produced in a style reminiscent of the Russian constructivists; bold colours to emphasise meaning (particulary the use of red), simple stylistic forms for reproductive properties and sporting shrewd political taglines and iconic figures. His style is very familiar and has been featured heavily in the mainstream media; he has produced Album covers for the Black Eyed Peas, DJ Shadow, Smashing Pumpkins and Led Zeppelin, made the film poster for Walk the Line, as well as a loading screen for Guitar Hero II. Even his sticker campaign ‘Obey’ has been ripped off on Family Guy (Peter paints the giant icon over the Sistine Chapel – is there anything Family Guy doesn’t rip off?).
During the previous election in 2004, Fairey produced a poster of Bush as a smiling vampire (very simalar to the ones of Sarah Palin generated this year). Guerrila artists are not known for producing positive images of political standing, so when permission came from the Obama camp, it was a bit of a shock. What Fairey had produced was ‘Hope’, a striking portrait of the candidate personifying the tagline. Fairey used this particular image (which was stolen from the internet) because he looked ‘presidential’ and made this more apparent by portraying him in patriotic American colours. When the initial run of 350 copies was sold through Fairey’s distribution company ‘Obey Giant’, they sold out instantly. Two months after Super Tuesday (Day in which a large number of American States cast their votes for a Presidential candidate) in more than 80,000 of Fairey’s posters and 150,000 postcard-size stickers had been absorbed by potential voters, particularly the young and apathetic first time voters that would be crucial in winning the election. Not bad for a weeks work and the stencil tool on Photoshop. But why has Fairey’s message changed? Can a street artist work with and against the system, without selling out? What is selling out?
While Street Art is reacting to the political and social economics of society, it is also destructive to the groups it is commenting on. The kitchness (bad taste) of this style is reminisant of Pop art, everybody’s favourite art movement of the 20th century. It’s all about taking elements from popular culture and reacting to them, often in an ironical way. Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych has been named the 3rd Most influential piece of Modern art, and I can see the resonance. Created in the weeks after her suicide it illiterates his ideas of the cult of celebrity. Both Warhol and Fairey have immortalised Chairman Mao, not to support his principles but because of the historic symbolism behind the image. Both Street art and Pop Art challenge the viewer to question the definition of art and its sincerity when works are made to be reproduced. 20th Century art critic Walter Benjamin wrote that work that is easily reproduced does not have the same ‘aura’ as an orginal, but Warhol and Fairey have strived to create a sensation through reproduction; first with the Marilyns and the Cambell soup cans, secondly with ‘Obey’ stickers on every lampost and ‘Hope’ on every window/T-shirt/internet blog in America. Post election day, ‘Hope’ has now become one of the most iconic images of the 21st century, and as you would cynically come to expect of any popular graffiti artist, the originals are now being sold on ebay for thousands of dollars. But does the ‘aura’ of an orginal artwork equate for a high price tag?
If we looked at the work of Banksy, a graffiti artist who has now become an household name, I would say yes. His orginal prints and stencil works are now selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds with world renowned auction houses. There are problems though, as works have to be authenticated by his company Pest Control, and run the risk of not selling if not done so. This company was set up because auction houses were taking down stencilled walls and selling the whole thing, which in his eyes was unacceptable because it belongs to the street. Having a Banksy on the side of your house can be beneficial, as it can double the value of your property, but it runs the risk of being painted over by the local government for fear of degradation of the local area. This is an artist that is cleverly making you think about the Urban environment you live in, making sure you are aware of the Rat Race you live in. However, because we agree with what he is saying we all scramble for a piece of him; his work, name, anything. Thus I think it is impossible for an artist not to sell out when we all have a copy of Wall and Piece as toilet reading. And then Guy Richie commissioned a portrait of Madonna from Banksy for her 50th birthday and I lost all respect for him altogether.
As for Fairey? Well, he may of started in the street, but being a commercial artist he knows you need to pay your bills before you can start revolutions. It is a very refreshing change to have an artist being political in a positive way without saying ‘make love not war,’ but how many souls do you have to sell before you can get to that point? He is already on the way to sell out mode by the amount of admirers he has out there. And his style is so simple, so easy to reproduce… I have already asked my friend to print one of his designs onto a T-shirt for me. There are many spoof ‘Hope’ posters circulating with images in Faireys style of the Pope (Pope), McCain (Nope), Amy Winehouse (Dope), Jesus (Hope) and my personal favourite, Obama with an afro hung outside a hairdresser sporting the tagline “Time for Change – $20 Cuts”. Originality never lasts for long. When you produce something so fresh, everybody wants a piece of it.