There's been a discussion raging on several blogs regarding Shepard Fairey, his self-serving entrepreneurship, and his "plagiarism" of anonymous protest images from the Public Domain. The main complaint is here, while perhaps a more thorough and thoughtful discussion is at a blog called Just Seeds, a self described "Visual Resistance Artists' Collective" -- [more info]. These are activists who take it upon themselves to "educate" the rest of us through their art, while perhaps eking out a small income from the sale of posters, prints, etc. Someone like Shepard Fairey who brands himself and who is in essence his own cause, is clearly their natural enemy.
Of course, much of the gut sentiment expressed here, both in the main post and by commentators, rubs me the wrong way, as it privileges certain viewpoints (not to mention certain specific forms of expression) over others; one of the ideas I find particularly noxious is the insistence that art must "benefit society" through spreading the anti-capitalist, anti-culture industry message etc. etc. In the case with Fairey, as activists they are mostly concerned with the dilution or loss of the "original" historical readings of protest images, powerful symbols that reverberate with their own political positions and causes and concerns. Only the author of the main post pauses to consider what it means to try to circumscribe or contain the meanings of images in this way. In other words, there is no sense here of the problems inherent to being didactic, and agitprop trumps other forms of visual expression without ever being identified as propaganda.
In any case, the main concerns on the Just Seeds post are worth thinking about, regardless of what side of the copyfight or political fence you're on: the "loss of history" via Fairey's decontextualization and re-use of these images, and his supposed closing off of public domain works via their newly minted status through incorporation as central images in his own, copyrighted works is an interesting discussion unto itself. And since my name and my "molotov" affair with Susan Meiselas was cited by two commentators, presumably as an example of why appropriation and decontextualization is a bad thing, I decided it might be time for me to chime in, if briefly. Here's an excerpt the post (long, worth reading in full) and my comment:
A Response to OBEY Plagiarist
Posted December 14, 2007 by jmacphee
It's taken me a long time to get this together, but I wanted to throw my ideas into the discussion around the artwork/plagiarism of Shepard Fairey that has been spinning around the web. For those that might not know, Shepard Fairey is the creator of the "Andre the Giant has a Posse" sticker campaign, which became a long running series of "Obey Giant" posters. Mark Vallen, a Los Angeles-based artist (who created some of my favorite street posters from the early LA punk scene), recently published a long critique of Fairey on his blog, Art For A Change. What I'm writing here directly relates to Mark's piece, so if you haven't read it, give it a look here.
Mark's write-up came out of a long discussion that has been going on between a number of politically-motivated artists and archivists about Fairey's work. Throughout the whole process of discussion it has seemed clear that we have been coming from parallel but divergent positions, with different parts of the larger issues at hand being more or less important to each of us. Mark is clearly concerned with social and political potentials of ART, and believes Fairey's wholesale "theft" of historical images cheapens the potential for art to make change in the world. Lincoln Cushing, an artist, archivist and author who has been involved in the discussions, is very concerned with how plagiarism hurts efforts to empower our communities with their own revolutionary art history. However, he also supports strategic use of existing copyright law, and recently got Fairey to pay retroactive royalties on a t-shirt with Cuban artwork appropriated without credit. Favianna Rodriguez, also involved, has been particularly frustrated with Fairey's use of and profiting off of the art of people of color, and the images of the struggles of people of color, while he has had to pay none of the costs for having to live as a person of color in this society or world. People are already rallying to Fairey's defense, claiming his appropriations are legitimate ways to create art, or simply attacking his critics, namely Mark Vallen. I'm not really interested in attacking Fairey, I simply want to make transparent the politics and economics his work uses and depends on. [read full post + comments]
Here's my brief comment that doesn't nearly address all of these concerns (so far no responses...):