Shepard Fairey: 'I’m not going to be intimidated by identity politics'
There are inherent contradictions to being a commercially successful street artist, and Shepard Fairey will be the first to tell you. “I critique capitalism, yet there are works in here for sale,” he says at the opening of Damaged, a 200-piece exhibition in downtown Los Angeles featuring work that can cost up to $100,000.
As for the corporate collaborations through his design agency, which include marketing campaigns for Nike and Saks Fifth Avenue, “People romanticize struggle and obscurity, and I get that, but it’s a very one-dimensional argument to say that people who have money are evil and artists who are poor are virtuous.”
Having begun his career as a teenager clandestinely pasting posters on the sides of buildings in the middle of the night in cities like New York and Providence, and eventually all over the world, the duality of his practice has, naturally, prompted accusations of selling out. Fairey, however, identifying as an artist first and activist second, calls his commercial efforts an “inside-outside” strategy to improve the system from the inside. “Being black or white about things, that you’re either in or you’re out – that’s ignorant,” he says. Plus, “Greater financial success has allowed me to be more generous.” (Proceeds from his posters have gone to Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union, and he does many of his public murals, including the 70-by-160ft painting on the West Hollywood library, for free.)
The title Damaged, Fairey’s first LA show in almost a decade, is a stark reversal in mood from the days of Hope, his most well-known work to date: a red-white-and-blue portrait of Barack Obama that crystallized the momentous but brief optimism of that era. In light of the last election cycle’s “very hostile rhetoric towards the most vulnerable”, and the media’s “race to the bottom in terms of clickbait”, “I couldn’t think of a better word to describe the state of things”, says Fairey, who borrowed the title from a seminal Black Flag hardcore album.
Technically ambitious and full of good intentions, the show itself is less a reflection of Fairey’s title than the current state of the American left: splintered and without focus. (He turned his attention to Trump in October of last year, creating the Beavis and Butthead-referencing Idiocracy images). In opposition to Hope’s clear focus, the works in Damaged are a broad and jumbled litany of the ills of a nation. One 30ft-long work is a collage of visual metaphors against xenophobia, sexism, crude oil and the Coca-Cola company, including a ticket marked “Corporate Permit” straight to “Endless Power”.
There are new portraits of pretty-eyed women peering through the torn edges of floral patterns, symbols of a tattered system that amount to little visual or political potency. There are gestures toward an expanded practice: a pair of new but unremarkable sculptures, an onsite printing press producing copies of his newspaper with the punning headline “Manifest Density”. But as American politics have evolved into a tumultuous, anxiety-ridden climate (and street art has become a means for estate developers to woo the selfie-taking set) Fairey’s approach feels like it hasn’t moved much.
Activism itself has also marched further to the left, placing greater scrutiny in recent years on what images artists may and may not use. Fairey was criticised by some Muslim American women who said his “We The People” work designed for the Women’s March was reductive and didn’t represent “diversity in [their] community”. When asked about his poster’s depiction of Munira Ahmed, a 32-year-old freelancer from Queens, in a star-spangled hijab, Fairey is defiant.
“That I wouldn’t be qualified to paint someone from another race or religion would be as absurd as me telling someone from another race or religion that they can’t paint JFK,” he says, adding that the onus is on minorities to understand artists won’t always get it right.
“If any group wants to not be disenfranchised, then understanding that there’s going to be a learning curve for people who have disenfranchised them is important,” he adds. “I’m not going to be intimidated by people or identity politics. I think that’s a dead end.”
Appropriation has, in fact, been the hallmark of Fairey’s work. His seminal 1996 Obey Icon was an abstracted photo of André the Giant’s face above “Obey”, a word taken from John Carpenter’s They Live and written in the red-and-white Futura typeface Barbara Kruger is famed for using. Later, his unauthorized use of an Associated Press image to create Hope led to a costly legal battle that was settled in 2011.
Hope, a gold version of which is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, entered an art-historical canon of indelible political slogans, up there with Kruger’s “Your Body is a Battleground”, and Jenny Holzer’s “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”. The phrase was reused by a 1,800-strong group of artists, including Holzer, who riffed on it in an open letter about sexual harassment in the art world.
Holzer and Kruger’s source materials were their own lives and the frustrations of being a female artist in a world of gendered power imbalance. There’s not a single work in Damaged, Fairey’s depictions of other people’s plight, that rises to that same level of inspiration. There seems to be a diminished resonance in art that expresses secondhand sentiments, suggesting that while an artist can borrow an image, he cannot effectively appropriate anguish. To criticism like this, Fairey says: “To me its about inclusion and social justice. My intention is trying to be as educated as possible, but also being fearless about expressing myself.”
While the promise of Hope remains unfulfilled, he uses the word “awakened” to describe the current political mood. “I think that a lot of people have been snapped out of a passive trance by the last election and the rise of Trump,” he says.
“If you look at the elections this week, a lot of Democrats were elected, but we still have a ways to go; the battle is sisyphean, and vigilance is ongoing,” he says. (As for the popular and very similar term “woke”: “I refuse to use that. I hate it. It’s corny.”)
Fairey’s practice owes heavily to Kruger, whose slogan-based works have influenced the look of his paintings, his new documentary, and the branding of Supreme skateboards. Yet Fairey enjoys a far greater populist appeal.
“What works in American politics isn’t the most sophisticated argument,” says Fairey in Obey Giant, the James Moll-directed documentary that debuted on Hulu this weekend. “Usually, it’s the most relatable argument.” The film illustrates what makes Fairey so popular with the masses; he’s a talented graphic designer with an all-American punk-rock foundation and sincere mission towards goodwill. At the end of the day, Fairey’s works import very mainstream values: racism is wrong, we should take better care of the environment, women deserve equal rights. What makes it radical is the packaging.
Damaged is on display at 1650 Naud Street, Los Angeles, CA until 17 December; Obey Giant is available now on Hulu
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