A Terrible Blogger is Born!

April 9, 2009

Shepard Fairey: dumbass Rodchenko or totalitarian Warhol?

Filed under: State — rmangum @ 3:59 am
Tags: , , ,

In an earlier post I defended, though somewhat halfheartedly, Shepard Fairey’s right to use the AP’s Obama photo in his art. But this should not be taken as an endorsement of the artist. I’ve not seen too many of his works, but they don’t strike me as very interesting. He’s too clearly commercial in style and intent to be a “street artist” any more than those corporate-funded anti-tobacco commercials on TV are guerrilla advertising, and as a pop artist he brings nothing original. Now he’s got a big exhibition, which trumpets that his work “actively resists categorization” and “shifts easily between the realms of high, commercial, and political art”. Really? Or is it equivocation? Or just a muddle? Now Fairey is getting to be a high-roller in the art world, so of course he makes the obligatory ironic nod to his success by calling his show “supply and demand”. Har har. But there’s not a touch of irony in the HOPE poster to which he owes his fame. As one critique at Tomorrow Museum puts it,


It is not that it borrows so obviously from communist propaganda design, but because it doesn’t transcend its source of inspiration.

And still worse,

Fairey’s work makes you wonder if he even quite knows what’s going on in the Middle East or what Guantánamo Bay even is. What Fairey communicates about politics is apathy and a vague directionless feeling of dissent.

Except in the HOPE poster, of course. No irony, no anger, and no apathy. Ean Frick writes,

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.

It is indeed. Fairey tempts us to think that it is faux propaganda, with his aforementioned obligatory ironic gestures. Again,  Tomorrow Museum‘s description of the Obama piece.

It is as it looks: a Dear Leader-like swoon….which could work only if you interpret it at it as a self-mocking, self-aware rub at “drinking the Obama kool-aid.”

But there simply isn’t anything in the image itself that would lead you to interpret that way. It’s clearly the work of someone who has already imbibed said kool-aid, and implores you to do the same. Frick has it right, I think, by comparing Fairey to the Soviet artist Rodchenko, as “a skilled visual propagandist whose job it is to make the establishment seem cool and radical.”



  1. Personally, I am (some-what of) a fan of the “Stalin aesthetic style.” Though, it seems that Mr.Fairey’s style is reminiscent to an ignorant view of Stalin’s reign with a side of 70’s propaganda.*

    On another note, I have to say that I am a big fan of your writing style, for it reminds me of an eccentric scientist trying to explain his feelings to a world that could barely understand the very words he writes.*1

    *Free Willy, man…

    *1 Even with a dickchionoary!

    Comment by Leo T. Magnificent — April 11, 2009 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the compliment on my writing. I’ll try not to let it go to my head, but I won’t make any promises

    Some of Fairey’s images are rather impressive. Some less so. But I think he’s conceptually confused and politically naive. I recommend reading the posts I link to, which are better critiques than mine. I certainly don’t want to suggest that a political criteria is necessary for judging aesthetic quality. Quite the opposite. I am a big fan of the futurists myself, and they were all fascists. A good deal of Soviet propaganda features really good art also, such as the aforementioned Rodchenko. You can see some of this stuff on a blog called “A Soviet Poster a Day” at http://sovietposter.blogspot.com/.

    Comment by rmangum — April 12, 2009 @ 12:38 am | Reply

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