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Shepard Fairey, White Entitlement, and Corporate Interests

February 5, 2009


Today the Associated Press threatened to sue Fairey. “The Associated Press has determined that the photograph used in the poster is an AP photo and that its use required permission,” the AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, said in a statement. “AP safeguards its assets and looks at these events on a case-by-case basis. We have reached out to Mr. Fairey’s attorney and are in discussions. We hope for an amicable solution.” You can read story here.

As someone who has criticized both Fairey and the Copyright monster (which does little for artists but tons for corporations), I have mixed feelings about this. Here are some points I want to share:

– Fairey rarely credits his
sources, which is problematic. You can read an earlier post by Josh MacPhee, here. In the past, those who have critiqued this did not have the legal nor financial means to sue him. Now he may be getting sued by the big guys. This is something he could have avoided if he were to have credited his sources. He has a team working with him, it’s not impossible, its the right thing to do.

– Copyright laws work in the favor of the corporate elite. So what is happening to Fairey is bound to affect us all as artists, in negative ways. My friend Gan Golan said it best, “If Fairey gets sued by AP it could set a precedent that is harmful for all artists who use  photographic imagery that appear news media. It is bad for parody artists and satirists. It is bad for all artists who re-appropriate and reinterpret imagery of any kind.

– Fairey loves to rip off the art of people who are part of the counter culture, many times they are people of color, or groups who have fought for social justice, or radicals who have fought against their own countries. In my opinion, this is commodification. The fact that he feels entitled to do this points at his white privilege and white entitlement. When you rip off Cuban artists, Chicano artists, even groups like the Black Panthers – and you fail to give credit – that to me is an excercise of white privilege. Now, the person who took the original photograph is a Latino, and from his commentary, it sounds like he is a working class Latino.

– The original photographer, Mannie Garcia, said this. “This
is not about me making money off this, it’s about recognition. I made
the most iconic image of our time, and I’d like it to make a
difference, not make me money. I’m a blue collar photographer – I am
out there on the grind every day. I spend more energy looking for work
than doing work. I just want Shepard Fairey to say “Alright, you’re the
guy. Thank you.”
See full story

– The whole monster that is copyright infrigement works in favor of corporate America. But let’s be clear that this is not a case of Corporate America vs. Street Artist. Fairey regularly consults for corporations, and he has done some campaigns in which he outright steals revolutionary imagery to use for capitalist agenda’s. So again, this is about an artist who loves to with corporations. See this really sad example.

– Fairey threatened to sue Baxtor Orr for parodying his work – which is baffling to me

– And finally, the folks repping Fairey in his legal case are people I align with. “He’s hired Anothony Falzone, a lawyer and executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University. Falzone is also the heir apparent to Lawrence Lessig, the famed Stanford copyright law professor and founder of Creative Commons,
the movement that encourages creators to modify copyright terms in
order to increase the amount of creativity (cultural, educational, and
scientific content) in the commons.” I am a MAJOR proponent of Creative Commons, in fact, the new book I worked on with Josh MacPhee, Reproduce & Revolt, is licensed under Creative Commons, and it includes work by Fairey himself.

So these are my thoughts…some contradictory yes, but it’s important to see this from the perspective of a woman of color, artist, activist, propagandist, agitator… my opinion is in formation, and I’m open to hearing other’s perspective on this.


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5 comments on “Shepard Fairey, White Entitlement, and Corporate Interests”

i had originally read this story on the wooster collective and they never mention the photographer, never give him a voice.
also the comments on the article about fairey threatening baxtor or seem to rally behind fairey without acknowledging the appropriation in his work.
i appreciate this perspective since it is such a confusing and grey matter. one that is present throughout art history (from example surrealist appropriation of african tribal art) though given a fresh intensity with the spread of images via the internet and within a supremely capitalist system and consumeristic culture.
i recently watched a video of fairey that appeared on usa network. it saddened me to see that he was advertised as a face of radical politics and contemporary street art.
how do you hold someone like that accountable?

Admittedly, I’m drawn to appropriation in other venues, and Adelaide is right that there’s a long history of it. I think it’s useful to distinguish between those appropriators who used the technique as a form of criticism, and those, like Fairey, who merely (and selfishly) co-opt.
I recently read one commentary that read Fairey’s appropriation of radical work as ironic, and it made my head spin. If that’s not proof that he decontextualizes the work in a way that’s detrimental to the original image, I don’t know what is!
So, I’m feeling similarly about this AP business. I find myself coming to Fairey’s defense in conversations about it, and I’m totally unnerved by what I’m saying! The repercussions of this legal battle will negatively impact those who critically appropriate, and those kinds of producers are already under fire. Is it worth hedging our bets and backing this guy? How much does it suck that it seems to come down to that??

Shorter version: “like all right-thinking people, I don’t like the idea that people can sue each other for what should be covered by fair use, BUT I kind of think Fairey is a twat.”

Thanks Favianna,
This is a great note on the complexities and worth approaches to the issues. I do agree with your overall analysis and contradictions, and having seen myself in similar circumstances defending an unfair circumstance in which this artist is just an instrument of manipulation I feel the pain. Unfortunately, if AP goes ahead the Rogers vs Koons is an unfortunate and reminiscent precedent, that much in the same fashion that you describe did a lot of damage to open cultural development despite diverging opinions on the work of Koons, which incidentally I find far more interesting than Fairey’s, but that is another story.
I think that we are going to be pulled in a hightly demagogic debate, where issues of class, ownership are going to be manipulated, in a cover up to seal up public domain, hybridization, and the constant flux of shared culture. For instance since you wrote your entry I have found in closed circles an outrage not so much for the disrespect of not recognizing the reference taken, but for doing so with a “working class” photographer. Often meaning the amount of work put into ones labor, which is far from the issue here, Fairey also makes a dedicated effort, Garcia also got paid, and he does not make a change of condition claim per se other than recognition, which albeit late, he got. And this is used to attack not so much Fairey but the notion that truthfulness and authenticity reside with that picture, whereas it really touches on far more complex issues like the ones you point out.
Anyhow, I do agree that this is not so much about him, or his Obama piece, but about us and what effect it may have if he is cut short from doing what he does through repressive means on the rest of us and the culture we aim to share.

shepard fairey IS a twat
he aligns himself with the typical self righteous liberal attitude.
his art is boring and speaks on such a superficial level. obey giant sucks as well. he’s propagating this meme without truly understanding the potential of memetic warfare.
he understands the nature of the viral idea, but he fails to charge his symbols with anything meaningful.