The Shepard Fairey controversy isn’t over but Stephen Heller puts an end to the question of whether Fairey is a plaigarist or an appropriationist on the New York Times’s The Moment blog. Now Mr. Heller will have to answer the same question for Richard Prince:
He has indeed copied a number of established graphic works in art and design history, including Koloman Moser’s emblematic Art Nouveau cover for the 1901 Vienna Secession magazine Ver Sacrum and the image (well known in graphic design circles) of a pained woman holding her ears, which was taken from a poster cautioning against noise pollution by the Swiss designer Josef Muller-Brockmann. Yet these images are playfully twisted, not maliciously pilfered. The critics argue that literal replication of the originals — and this is true of Moser and Muller-Brockmann’s imagery, among others — is ethically wrong, but that charge fails to take into account Fairey’s fundamental ethos. His is a wink and a nod toward visual culture and media monopoly. No designer with Fairey’s experience and historical knowledge could be so stupid as to pinch such visible historical artifacts and call them his own. On the contrary, Fairey sees popular visual culture in terms of what Tom Wolfe has called a “big closet” of shared objects. For him, the ubiquity of the graphic design and advertising art that he relies on for source material makes it a kind of commercial folk art. Although some of what he borrows is not as anonymously vernacular as one might like, Fairey believes that the fact that it is designed for public consumption makes it free for the taking. [ . . . ]
Fairey is essentially arguing that icons can be conflated and repurposed to achieve manipulative results. His own appropriation refers to that which goes on in the mass media every day. At its most articulate, his work is a critique of image ownership.
But this does not mean the results are not sometimes simplistic. Indeed, some of his posters are ruefully naïve. Still, after seeing the last 20 years of Fairey’s output at the I.C.A., the last thing I’d call him is a crook. What I would say, however, is that his “Obey” has evolved from a cultural critique into a successful commercial brand with anti-establishment overtones. To protect that brand, even he is now aggressively using legal means to stop other artists from appropriating his work. While there’s nothing crooked about this, it is painfully ironic, if not disappointing, to see “Obey Giant” co-opted by Obey the Brand.
Shepard Fairey is Not a Crook (The Moment/New York Times)