I've been away from the blog for a while, obviously, in part because I tend to go absolutely ass-over-teacup whenever I have to move more than a few feet out my door so moving back up to Toronto from the corn fields of Pennsylvania took a lot out of me. But the other thing holding me back was the question of how exactly to get at the material in this article.
See, I want to talk about Shepard Fairey, who I've mentioned before as kind of a louse who rips off leftist artists as part of a kind of pseudo-leftist undirected capitalism-as-rebellion marketing scheme. And I want to talk about what a sell out he is, and I want to talk about it because the brilliant Melissadoom (who suggested the title of this article to me) strongly urged me to on the basis that she, and probably a whole lot of other people, had no bloody clue who this guy was until I started talking about him directly.
Just to recap, he's the guy who did the Obama HOPE poster. Yeah. That dude. And the Andre the Giant OBEY dude. Now available on shirts and hoodies and sexy eveningwear probably and who knows what else. So, you've seen his work, probably, but I wouldn't be surprised if, like Melissa, and like a number of other folks I've talked to since starting this article, you didn't really know anything about him or his work or his practice of ripping other artists off.
But I just couldn't quite get a handle on things, and I think I've finally figured out why:
I'm just not sure it's relevant anymore to say that someone is cashing in or selling out. I'm not sure that charge carries any weight with people. And I'm going to have to loop around a bit and dig into the meaning of some of these notions in both pop culture and the art world before I can swing back to Fairey. This isn't an expose on Fairey, exactly, because the article I've linked to before on his work does a darn good job of explaining who he is and how he works. Think of it instead as an explanation of why buying a hat with OBEY on it not only isn't politically radical, it's actually part of a depoliticization of art and culture that does nothing but serve corporate interests and superstar millionaire artists.
The sense I get is that a lot of people don't see anything wrong with purchasing the emblems of an alternative, radical identity. And to some extent I even agree with that--we're all living under the post-industrial, post-national, global capitalist death machine, and saying we should all live like ascetics in protest seems impractical, not particularly politically effective, and psychologically untenable. If you buy cool boots to go with your goth ensemble, I'm not going to fault you because truth be told you're probably doing other things to screw with the machine. (I disagree with other leftists, for example, that the economic necessity of things like dumpster diving or thrift store purchases renders those actions politically neutral--if I'm getting my furniture off the street it can be both because I don't have a lot of money and also because I don't want to feed into a culture of buying things new and throwing them out when they can still be used.)
So, to some extent I get the antipathy towards the snobby hipper-than-thou anti-consumer attitudes you sometimes see on the Left. Hell, half the time when people are accusing bands, in particular, of selling out, what they really mean is "I hate your new album!"
The terms "selling out" or "cashing in" aren't the kind of thing I'd leap to define in any sort of rigorously scientific way, but they do have a meaning beyond "Why aren't you doing straight death metal anymore," a meaning connected with that notion of buying the emblems of radicalism without behaving in a radical way, and I describe it as stipping out the content, often the radical political content, of a work in order to appeal to not just a wider audience but also a wealthier, often corporate audience. People get so hung up on style, like somehow making your songs less than eight minutes long means you've sold out, or because your audience shifts you've sold out, but that totally plays into the style-over-substance ideology that props up the act of selling out itself.
That's a pretty lengthy definitional preamble though so let's get into the Weird Theory Shit you've come to know and grudgingly accept from this here institution.
One of the thinkers that I'd peg as pretty valuable to this conversation is Jean Baudrillard. I'm not an expert on everything this cat has to say, but I have done quite a bit of thinking on one particular volume--The System of Objects--and the rather dark predictions it has for any attempt to express an identity through objects.
For Baudrillard, the key to consumerism isn't buying stuff, the key is buying signs, signs in the semiotic sense of Stuff That Represents Other Stuff. A Signifier (stuff) that stands in for a Signified (other stuff). Baudrillard says, we don't really live in a materialistic culture at all. We don't have a material culture and we aren't accumulating objects. I mean literally we are, but we're not accumulating the objects for their own sake.
No, instead, we're accumulating objects for their symbolic value--buying as a way of establishing identity. The reason we keep getting more and more useless shit is not because we take pleasure in objects-in-themselves but because we are trying to consume meaning, hungering endlessly for a symbolic sustenance that can never, ever fill us up. Objects only mean certain social classes, certain ways of life, certain eras, only political in the sense that they can represent Bourgeois Middle Class Modernism or Traditional Family Values. If we were actually a material culture, we might find some satisfaction, but we can't get no satisfaction, as the man says, because we don't consider objects as objects, only as signs.
Now, I don't take quite as dim a view as Baudrillard does--for him, I think maybe the only way out is the Communist Revolution, and I mean I think he's got a certain point there that if you really want to short circuit capitalism the only way you can do it is by, you know, actually short circuiting capitalism.
But I think we can maybe create a more articulate picture of the different ways in which objects serve as and are manipulated as signs. There's a difference between the mere accumulation of symbolic objects which are put together in space, and the active modification and subversion of those symbolic objects (or creation of symbolic objects--i.e. Maker Culture). And there's different ways in which we can rework symbols, some better than others.
Fairey, for example, started out in a field where the manipulation of signs is a powerful form of resistance, if not materially then at least psychologically and symbolically. Fairey after all started as a street artist, and like many street artists--Banksy most popularly, but also everyone from the canonized Keith Harring and Basquiat to the space-redefining performances of radicals like the London-based "anarchitects" who call themselves the Space Hijackers. Key to their operations is the act of Appropriation. Now, that's a dirty word in Internet Social Justice but it's not in art history. In fact, it's a well-established strategy in art for shaking things up, and it's more frequently used as a tool of resistance against culture or even art itself than in the wider colonialist sense in which Social Justice folks often use it.
I could cite all kinds of artists here, from dadaists like Marcel Duchamp (who took mundane objects and declared them art, thus destabilizing the notion of how "Fine Art" comes into being--does it really just come down to a signature? Though there's some possibility that he was playing an even ore complicated shell game than even his contemporaries suspected...) or Hannah Hoch (who cut "with a kitchen knife" advertisements and collaged them together to form a warped, looking-glass version of the bourgeois Weimar Republic) to someone like Spiegelman in the present day transforming early comic strip characters into characters acting out his personal traumatic experience of the destruction of the World Trade Center.
I think I'll select, though, a collective aiming the weapon of appropriation specifically at the art world. Check out this protest art by the Guerilla Girls, aimed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
They've taken a piece by Jean-Dominique Ingres, one of his characteristic sexy idealized women, and slapped on a gorilla mask (guerilla, geddit?) as a way of destabilizing the male-gazey sexuality of the courtesan on display here. It's appropriation--they are taking, assuredly without permission, the work of another cultural creator for their own ends--but there's a fundamental power dynamic here that's important to recognize, a power dynamic made clear by the statistics on the poster, statistics which have apparently only gotten worse over time.
What's particularly exciting to me about this is that this act of appropriation isn't the final word, but is part of an ongoing political conversation, one that saw the collective recently appropriating their own work for the sake of making a related point about a different field of cultural production:
At its best, appropriation is a strategy whereby things can be transformed actively with new meanings, and it's that transformative process that strikes me as potentially worthwhile despite Baudrillard's reservations about the unfulfilling nature of semiotic juggling.
And this is the field Fairey is working in. But the thing about Fairey is that while the Guerilla Girls, Spiegelman, Hoch, Duchamp, and countless others appropriate to politicize or repoliticize, Fairey seems only to depoliticize. The source article I'm working from, here, that details Fairey's various appropriations, points out that even as a street artist his work was strangely contentless. What, after all, is actually accomplished by the OBEY logo? What is destabilized? What is resisted? It's rather hard to say. Stylistically it bears more resemblance to Soviet poster art than to anything on the streets of an American city a few decades ago, so even stylistically it's difficult to see Fairey's street art as a destabilization of any kind of propagandistic style that actually exists.
What's more, the OBEY logo serves as a depoliticizing force. What, for example, is accomplished by slapping the logo on a photo of a Black Panther party member? There's an appropriation taking place there, but who does it benefit? As far as I can see, only Fairey's brand.
And a brand it is, as is revealed by the establishment of an entire clothing line based on Fairey's designs. I think it would be difficult to find a better example of Baudrillard's notion of consumption of signs. It's similarly a great example of more capitalism being positioned as a solution to the problems of capitalism: the clothing line (ostensibly) "goads viewers, using the imperative “obey,” to take heed of the propagandists out to bend the world to their agendas" and prompts "thinking about your surroundings and questioning the purpose."
Apparently "how do I produce countercultural objects myself outside of the realms of consumer culture" is not one of the questions the makers of this clothing line find interesting or in need of answering. I'm reminded of an article I read recently (which I can't locate now unfortunately) about Grant Morrison's recurring theme, in his comics, of the battle to solve the problems of superhero comics. The article pointed out that apparently "stop buying these comics" is not one of the options worth considering.
OBEY is a sign, an appropriated sign, that means nothing and can thus serve to represent anything. Ultra-versatile, it can stylistically represents a kind of aesthetic of resistance while ultimately serving the interests of an internationally known artist, who, recall, makes use of the art of less known and often uncompensated leftist artists.
Fairey is thus selling out in grand form here, and his consumers are buying into the ideology that makes this possible: the ideology of consumed aesthetic signs. Fairey isn't challenging the establishment, he IS the establishment. The establishment might be broadly liberal in the art world but you can find out exactly how far that liberalism spreads when janitors at any given art museum try to unionize!
And when you get right down to it, the contemporary art world is built upon style over substance--though not, of course, an eye to aesthetic quality. It's been that way for quite a long time now. We could talk, for example about Roy Lichtenstein, who stole, blew up, and traced (badly) the work of comic book artists, all to great acclaim.
This is one bone of contention I have with the author of the article on Fairey. Let's look at what he has to say on Lichtenstein:
"Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein based his paintings on the world of American comic strips and advertising imagery, but one was always aware that Lichtenstein was taking his images from comic books; that was after all the point, to examine the blasé and artificial in modern American commercial culture. When Lichtenstein painted Look Mickey, a 1961 oil on canvas portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, everyone was cognizant of the artist’s source material - they were in on the joke."
I have to question whether Lichtenstein's audience truly was "cognizant of the artist's source material." The anti-pop art writing of major modernists seems, as Bart Beaty points out in his book "Comics versus Art," to take all comics as a lump style, without variation, and produced by interchangeable artists. Comics, to these readers, were not something to be looked at, nor were the images to be recognized, all that mattered was the style, and so what if Lichtenstein's drawings were far worse than the source material he traced from? (Weirdly, Beaty seems to defend Lichtenstein, though his argument in this chapter is somewhat unclear.) This attitude is pervasive--the other day I was told by a reader of my thesis proposal that he was far more interested in one of the alternative comics I am citing than the Batman comic I'm citing, on the grounds that unlike the handmade alternative comic the Batman comic is "made by a team, with computers." (I didn't have the heart to point out that it had been written and illustrated entirely by Frank Miller--it was The Dark Knight Returns. Whoops.)
Lichtenstein's work is not adding anything to the discourse on consumerism, as far as I can see. If his work seems cheap, poorly rendered, and disposable, this is indicative of a failure on his own part, and the fact that critics have continuously failed to recognize his bad draughtsmanship, minimal understanding of composition, terrible sense of color, and poor understanding of human anatomy is indicative only of their assumptions about comics and how comics look. It is easy to see this blindness when we compare Lichtenstein's works to the works of artists he stole from, some now recognized masters of the field:
A 13 year old on Deviantart wouldn't be able to get away with this shit!
Lichtenstein does not critique or satirize the culture of avarice of which he is a part, he simply reflects it, with the critics who lionize him and others like him cheerfully complicit. It is the same with the critics who propelled Fairey to fame (and other "street" "artists" like the contentless Mr Brainwash, the subject of Bansky's brilliant satirical documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop), or who lionized Damien Hirst's action of selling his own gaudy, trashy sculpture for a massively inflated price to himself right before a major auction of his work as a form of brilliant performance art. These people do not damage the reputation of the art world with anyone who has not already written off the art world. The art world itself laps their antics up eagerly.
In this sense, the art world as a whole exactly parallels a teenager who buys a hat with OBEY printed on it. It is no different. It simply accumulates signifiers that stylistically represent rebelliousness, effortlessly taking them into itself and making them a part of the engine of buying and selling, investing and stockpiling. This tradition of snobbery, of stripping images of their political content, of holding the art world aloof from the rest of the world, is what allows artists like Fairey to thrive, churning out meaninglessness while adopting a posture of social consciousness.
It is not the act of appropriation that is bad, but the power dynamics and the profit motive.
It is not the purchasing of a hat that is bad, but the wider culture in which purchasing a hat is seen as a viable substitute for political resistance.
It is not the aesthetic change that represents selling out, but the collusion with odious institutions that those changes represent.
It's not that Fairey or Lichtenstein are bad for using other people's art, it's that they've used it in a way that is so stripped of political context, and that feeds so perfectly into the art world's smug upper class superiority complex. That's what drives me up the wall with these artists, and why I think it's totally reasonable to refer to them as selling out, and cashing in on the work of others, and why I consider buying their work to be buying into an ideological structure that replaces consumption with political action.
But like I said at the beginning, I'm not sure this is even a viable critique anymore. We're so deeply embedded in a culture where we're urged to vote with our dollars, where even boycotts are treated as borderline criminal acts by the conservative masses and actual acts of civil disobedience are treated as acts of domestic terrorism, and where Hot Topic for decades has been selling a style best described as "sorta skater punk rock and 40% gothic," stripped of the do-it-yourself attitudes that characterized those movements early on.
Fairey is just an inevitable product of the system in which we live, where the cultural capital of branding someone a sell out has been losing value faster than Dogecoin for years now.
But maybe that just means that this critique is more important now than ever.
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