OBEY Andre On Its Face: Theory and Praxis

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I hate to exhaust the topic. It’s not always All-Shepard-Fairey-All-the-Time here at gnovis. But Jed’s comment helped a lot in refining my thoughts, which were admittedly unclear as I worked through some tangles. And aside from fostering more healthy dialogue on the blog, I think exploring these knotty but not impenetrable questions of interpretation that are relevant to a lot of CCT work could be fruitful.

In his comment, Jed notes that simply discrediting commercialized art overlooks the important role of the viewer as commodifier. "To claim that commercial viewership of art is somehow an inauthentic experience misses the reality of the artist/audience relationship, and in turn the impact of consumption on the artist’s expression."

I agree that privileging certain forms of expression over others, non-commercial or otherwise, is potentially really problematic. Inherently subjective notions of artistic
value and authenticity are incredibly difficult to
evaluate, especially in relative terms.

My thoughts on Fairey’s particular… brand- of commodification are I think, more subtle than dismissive snobbery towards popular art, or empty notions of "keepin’ it real."

I agree that consumption itself can and does impart meaning. That reality is
proved by the success of the OBEY campaign, which began as a mere happy accident
that gained traction only when it became a social/cultural
movement, propelled by the actions of collaborating artists in cities around the world, and through the probing questions of viewers confused by the potential meanings of the mysterious, ubiquitous Andre image.

The relationship between consumerism and construction of meaning, which is bound up in creator/audience cooperation, reaffirms Fairey’s thesis, underscoring what he sees as the command/OBEY interactions upholding the broader system.

To me, it is not Fairey’s adept use of commodification itself that is potentially problematic, but the possible contradictions raised by the deliberate philosophical veneer given to the OBEY campaign.

Many of the ideals and methods in Shepard Fairey’s work draw heavily from street art . Although mechanized, Fairey’s reproduction of images in poster campaigns and stencil art resembles the methods of "bombing" implemented by freestyle and stencil graffiti artists, seeking to deploy reproduced imagery en masse.

artists distinguish themselves from "gallery art" in part, by
a commitment to popularizing more gritty, pedestrian fare with a particular agenda in mind that is often politically or socially oriented. In making their work available to
any and all people outside Chelsea, Wynwood, or 14th street, and by doing so free of charge, street artists use viral modes of transmission to achieve notoriety.

In some cases artists use that widespread penetration to overwhelm the scant presence of high art. Through high volume reproduction and widespread exposure similar to branding– no in fact, it is branding– street artists destabilize established distinctions between high and low art. Sound familiar ?

In this context the commercialized nature of Fairey’s work makes a great deal of sense. By mass producing his work, Fairey has significantly broadened his audience, while at least potentially expanding the scope of
artistic modes of expression beyond those already associated with traditionally sanctioned Art.

Okay cool. We’re all hip here at CCT. Many of us have studied how pop-artists have been at this game since the mid 20th century.

A central motivation behind the mass deployment initiated by many street artists is the reappropriation of public space. What other people may see as vandalism, street artists view as reclaiming the visual and philosophical realm of the urban landscape that’s been commandeered by advertisers and government.

Fairey’s clothing and commercial prints could be seen as attempting a similar reassertion of cultural space. Seeking to harness the commercial process that establishes the cultural imaginary is an analagous theoretical project. Using the screen print medium is a logical choice given its prominence and ease of access. Fairey seeks to reappropriate popular imagery to recontextualize it and reframe or expand its possible meanings.

But in praxis, I question certain aspects of his methods. A major part of Fairey’s ethos implements reverse psychology to question the prescriptive nature of the capitalist system and how consumerism functions to support it. He asks one to dis obey, to scrutinize the image arresting her. But seeking to interrogate the mechanism of conspicuous consumption by selling tee-shirts to adolescents necessarily raises questions of authenticity, regardless of whether the mode of production/consumption in and of itself may retain validity.

This is not to say art cannot be commericalized, but the contradictions between Fairey’s philosophy and his methods, at least on their face, are difficult to deny.

Such commercial methods also seem antithetical to the politics of street art. While street artists operate through similar branding mechanisms, the value of their brand image draws largely from fame and notoriety itself, and much less from actual capital gain. Similarly, the process of cooperative engagement creates the meaning. But the methods and the objectives of street artistry, seem much more theoretically cohesive.

In contrast, Fairey’s philosophical ideology can seem comparitively less activist and potentially more self-serving. An assertion which I’m sure he resents, but is difficult not to at least entertain. Endulging the OBEY campaign as an artistic statement on consumerism seems a lot like the real thing. I wouldn’t necessarily agree on such an indictment of all commcercial art. But considering Fairey’s work in light of the tradition from which he and OBEY sprung, and according to his own stated convictions, necessarily raises such questions of integrity.

Nevertheless, Fairey’s method is very post-modernly passable. One could
see how the somewhat natural processes of establishing OBEY as a
commcercial brand, and the associated economic, cultural, and social
movements obviate the powerful mechanisms of consumer culture by carrying them out. And yes, everything Shepard Fairey is doing references the long
line of pop-artists who sought to achieve similar ends with equally skeptical attitudes, using similar
methods of mechanization, reappropriation, and rampant commercialism.

So most of the tensions immediately confronted in Fairey’s work are potentially accounted for. But at what point does abstract intellectualism obscure the real issues at hand?

I feel like if he’d do something more radical with the work, it
might approach the Lose Weight Exercisey ideals he gives it. For instance, Andy pissed all over
his work. I mean, he created elegant abstractions through the process of oxidation, or at least had his assistants create these elegant abstractions which required the use of Mexican beer– and people liked it more. That seems like an inherently much
more powerful and certainly less ambiguous indictment of consumerism,
while still undeniably benefiting from its workings.

I know Fairey has been
more daring in his more personal projects, but I think his other work has some deep conlicts with his stated artistic purpose which for some, undermines his entire body of work.

Furthermore, I think the philosophical underpinnings of OBEY start to really break down with Fairey’s practice of reappropriating images that sometimes leans towards questionable. Again, distinguishing reappropriation from this thing that used to be called plagiarism, is venturing close to devaluing certain forms of artistic expression.

But there are some cases in which Fairey was less than careful, and he borrowed images nearly in there entirety and with few adjustments. There is little to support notions of recontextualization if hardly anything is changed. In the case of Fairey’s "Cuban Rider" screened t-shirt, the image was pulled from a print by Rene Maderos , a living artist with managerial representation. Fairey apparently made no attempts to ascertain whether the original author was living, etc, which begs the question of whether he ever did before the day he received a letter from Mederos’ attorney, inviting criticism given his widespread practice of borrowing.

Fairey seems to work quite well within the strictures of the
capitalist system. By his own admission, he thinks that political
projects must be executed within that system in order to be effective, and to think otherwise is naively idealistic. Yet, Fairey doesn’t always demonstrate a respect for property, intellectual or
otherwise, which is fundamental to that system as it stands.

Fairey says that he doesn’t ask permission, he just does things, which was referencing his more explicitly non-commerical postering campaigns. That devil may care attitude seems to bleed, which perhaps is to be expected. But it stills seems rather convenient.

Borrowing renegade street art methods that discount the role of
property and ownership in the production of meaning is a potentially viable, potent method. But directly capitalizing off those
methods, without taking care to observe the bounds of the capitalist system himself, only further undermines the tenuous nature of Fairey’s conflicted theoretical project.

Whether Urban outfitters t-shirt wearers "get" Fairey’s stated goals or whether they are remotely aware of the history behind the images Fairey uses is sort of
irrelevant. How those prosucts and images are experienced and the processes that follow are "valid" regardless.

But Fairey’s own objectives, how they apear to conflict with his practices, and how they seem too easily explained away by theory or historical reference, sometimes fail to meet
my internal sense of what comprises artistic integrity. And that’s one of the meanings I’ve attempted to help craft through consuming Fairey’s work.

Nicole K. Guerra