[20 February 2009]
Graphic designer Shepard Fairey, now famous for the “Hope” posters for the Obama campaign (which has kicked up a legal battle about fair use), had a retrospective recently at the ICA in Boston. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, was not particularly impressed.
Warhol sublimely commodified images of Mao and the hammer and sickle four decades ago, in keeping with an ambition—to infuse subjects and tones of common culture with powers of high art—that has not grown old. Warhol’s revelatory games with the cognitive dissonance between art and commerce have galvanized artists in every generation since. But you can stretch a frisson just so many times before it goes limp. Like the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who included a Louis Vuitton boutique in his Los Angeles retrospective, Fairey reverses a revolution achieved by Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein. He embraces a trend in what the critic Dave Hickey has called “pop masquerading as art, as opposed to art masquerading as pop.”
That remark is a bit cryptic, particularly if you are skeptical about the dichotomy between pop and art. Around what concepts can that dichotomy be organized, anyway, in our culture? Can you refer to the intentions of the work’s creator? And then which intentions are artistic, and which ones aren’t? Evaluating how purposefully commercial a work is no longer lets us pigeonhole it along these lines. Art, after all, is big business, an investment category. Artists have become self-conscious businesspeople, producing their work along industrial lines and with a mind to maximizing its market value by controlling its scarcity and promoting it with various stunts. And the nature of the audience has changed, with the democratization of cultural consumption and the ease with which certain sorts of works can be distributed. Whether something is pop or art may depend entirely on the spirit with which it is contemplated by the viewer—the aesthetic quotient of a particular piece may rely as much on the cultural know-how of the audience as the proficiency of the artist. If we are conditioned to judge visual works by how effective they are in capturing our attention—the way marketing efforts are judged—than is it inevitable that artists will move toward catering to that principle?
These are the sorts of questions Rob Walker gets into in an essay he posted to his site about Fairey from a few years ago. At the time Walker was writing, Fairey was working in marketing but also conducting guerrilla art projects, blurring the lines (at least in his own mind) between the two.
When I interviewed Fairey for that magazine article, I of course asked him about the contradictions involved in, say, being someone who has both wheat-pasted the icon face over Sprite billboards – and who has actually done professional design work for the company that owns Sprite. “People make this very black-and-white delineation,” he said. “But I say, ‘How would you feel about it if it were a little more ambiguous? If all companies had marketing materials that didn’t insult the consumer? That were somewhat creative and intelligent and almost like an art piece with a product behind it?”
In other words, instead of responding to the encroachment of evil branding into the supposedly pristine authenticity of the street by withdrawing – why not engage? If the idea of spreading the Obey image is to see how far the Obey image can spread, doesn’t it make a certain sense for it to show up on apparel that is sold in chain stores? If a multinational can put its icons on the street, maybe the street should put its icons into the shopping mall.
Drawing on cultural historian Jackson Lears’s Fables of Abundance, Walker contrasts Fairey with Joseph Cornell, another artist who appropriated materials from pop culture and refashioned it into art. But Cornell’s work was obsessional, private. It didn’t seem to be made with the idea of seeing how far his influence, or his trace, could be spread, as is the case with Fairey’s work. At the Cornell retrospective I saw in Salem, Massachusetts, the intimacy of the work was unmistakable; peering at his boxes made me feel a bit voyeuristic, even as I was inspired with a notion of my own potential creativity, the ways I could indulge my own obsessions (whatever I discovered them to be) with certain motifs of imagery, certain juxtapositions. Cornell’s art doesn’t seem to want to redeem his found objects so much as to render them mysterious, with all the mystery that a specific person’s peculiar and ineffable fascination can supply them with. Cornell’s work would not make for effective marketing material. The resonance of his designs are too inward and idiosyncratic. They are what no effective advertising can be: creepy.
Advertising is never creepy, always cool. And Fairey’s work seems to fit that aesthetic, prompting viewers to respond with the recognition that something hip is happening in Fairey’s mode of appropriation. Once you recognize that commercial persuasion has crowded out the space for art appreciation for just about everyone in our culture, the natural response is to try to function within commercial persuasion, adapt its ends to one’s own purposes. You can turn yourself into a brand, or you can take personal pride in how effective you shape the image of a product’s brand. Or you can work as though influence (cool, or hip, or what have you) was a medium all its own, with a meta-aesthetic beyond a given work’s persuasiveness. (You see this when people judge Super Ads in terms of their creativity rather than in terms of how many more people purchase the thing advertised.)
Popularity has become a medium in which artists now prefer to work. Artists can now treat the delineation of their influential scope as the measure and the message of their work; this iss perhaps the most characteristic aesthetic for which contemporary culture can take credit—the essence of art in the early-internet era. Artists can extend and measure their reach, “subvert” mass persuasion by perfecting it. But the pursuit of such scale, of making notoriety art, corrupts the intimacy that art like Cornell’s had succeeded in achieving in the past. Or worse, it permits that intimacy to be refashioned as marketing, so it seems like our closest intimates, those privy to our deepest desires and concerns, those who can give them form that can stir and move us, are advertising copywriters.