Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shepard Fairey: Propaganda remix artist or plaigarist?

Mark Vallen has an interesting article on his site framing Shepard Fairey as a plaigarist.

From Vallen's site: [ Left: Fairey’s plagiarized poster. Right: Original street poster from Czechoslovakia’s, Prague Spring - Artist unknown 1968. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.]

The research on Fairey's iconography is impressive and my hat is off to Vallen for putting the article together and sharing it on his site. That said, I wish the tone were moderated a bit. At times it's hard not to see it as the product of vituperative jealousy. Knowing the little of Vallen's work I do, I don't think that's the case; I suspect Vallens has less of a bone to pick with Fairey's riches and reknown than he does with a postmodern zeitgeist that levels everything to the same meaningless image goulash. I'm sympathetic to that view; I tend to be unconvinced by the third wave of any "ism" (marxism, feminism...) and deconstruction only goes so far. But even with me imputing those good motives to the critique, the article still comes off as too bitter for my taste. Maybe it's the effect of blogs. I am an unapologetic defender of blogs (no kidding), but there's a proper tone and approach for everything and "asshat" isn't a word that should be used outside of a rant (Note: Vallen doesn't use "asshat" anywhere in the article.)

But really, I didn't post about the article to criticize it. I wanted to post about it because it raises some really interesting questions. In this age of remixes and mash-ups, Vallen's article makes me wonder where one crosses the line from re-use and re-contextualizing to just plain stealing. Vallen mentions Roy Lichtenstein by way of contrast, refering to Lichtenstein's "Look Mickey" as an example of a painting that appropriates images but with the viewer's full knowledge of the source material. But then I think some of Lichtenstein's other paintings and they seem more similar to Fairey's to me in that they appropriate comic book panels without crediting the original.

In short, I'm not sure what to make of Fairey's relentless pillaging of images for his own productions. Is it simply plaigarism? Is it postmodernism? Is Fairey some sort of Commie Murakami or is it all just "rebellious patina and ersatz activism"? In my darker moments I wonder if a guy like Fairey really is a kind of radical, packaging fake rebellion and profiting handsomely off of his own particular marriage of leftist iconography and capitalist marketing.

[I'd like to note that in the course of today since first reading Vallen's article, I have come across two stories that are probably each worth their own blog post, but who has time. First, BBC reported a couple of weeks ago on teens who were arrested for stealing virtual furniture in "Habbo Hotel," a 3D social networking site. Apparently people pay real money for this virtual furniture (4000 euros worth in this case) and these kids used a fake site to swipe people's passwords and then take their "stuff." Second, Stockholm's Museum of Modern Art has discovered that its 100-some Warhol Brillo boxes are all fakes, whatever that means.]

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