In conjunction with Shepard Fairey opening a new exhibition, Sound & Vision, at Stolenspace in London tonight (and officially, Saturday, October 20), we wanted to publish our recent feature on Shepard from our current November 2012 Politics & Art issue. In conversation with Ron English at the end of August, the interview is a candid talk from two artists who have helped shape a dialgoue of modern politics and art, and have helped foster contemporary street art.
Interview by Ron English
Photos by Jon Furlong
The first time I laid eyes on Shepard Fairey was at Max Fish’s, a hipster art bar presided over by Carlo McCormick. I was sitting at a table with friends and I spotted him pacing around, not seeming to know anyone. When I made eye contact, he came over and started telling us this story of how he had liberated his first billboard the night before. As he described the process of blowing the image up at Kinko’s and tiling the pieces together, laying flat on the scaffolding when cars passed, my friends kept kicking me under the table whispering, “tell him about your billboards.”
I kept quiet and soaked in the story of his first billboard adventure, fully recognizing the look in his eye. He was hooked. Only time would reveal how hooked he really was. Not only did he become the most prolific wheate paste artist in history, but a new generation followed him in the creation of the global phenomenon that became known as Street Art. —Ron English
Ron English: Could you talk a bit about the story of the Obama poster and the context in which you created the image?
Shepard Fairey: During the Bush administration, I really felt like it was important to step up my commentary about events that were going on; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt the lack of respect for privacy that came with the patriot act and the shrinking freedoms that were packaged as things you have to do for your own safety because its a world of terrorists that want to take your freedom. Which instead, we had our own government take our freedom in the name protect us from the other people who hated our freedom. Pretty ironic.
Now, I’ve been making political work since I started in the early 90’s but it was more about the general ideas and questioning authority and the abuse of power. I wasn’t being overtly topical for the most part about specific things happening in the world. It was more general ideas of mistakes humanity makes over and over.
In making all this anti-bush stuff and rooting for Kerry by default in 2004 I felt like a lot of what I was doing was reacting to negative things and not necessarily trying to create a positive thing.
I enjoyed Obama’s speech in 2004 at the DNC and when he announced his candidacy I looked into his policies. I felt like he was unique to other mainstream politicians. He was outspoken against the war in Iraq even when that was a popular position. I liked his statements about decreasing the power of lobbyists, closing Guantanamo Bay, pulling out of Iraq, and investing in a green economy. Those are things that really resonated with me. Then I need to make political art that’s towards things that could happen or are happening. That was my rational for making the HOPE poster.
Initially, I made it as a PROGRESS poster, but changed it to HOPE after I got some feedback from the campaign. My thought was I’m going to put this image out there and even its disinfects a small group of people who that are my audience, then that’s better then not doing anything. I intentionally made the image something that I thought was patriotic in a really reverent way, but didn’t have all the very narrow formulaic elements of the usual political poster.
What kind of conversations did you have, or did you ever have any kind of conversations in the Obama Campaign at any point?
Well, I did converse with people in the Obama campaign and the challenge he faced in 2008 was he was seen as too much of a rookie who wasn’t established enough. In creating the image, it was more or less a two dimensional statue to him and I recognized that in some ways it was propagandistic and emotionally manipulative.
I think it was an important strategy in making people feel that Obama was established. When someone takes the time to render a stylized illustration there’s something almost sub-concise that transfers to the viewer that this was made because the subject has merit. The more it was out there, the more I felt like it validated Obama and his ideologies.
Was there any kind of backlash from the Republicans? It seemed like there was this good setup were they were focusing on the campaign for using an illegal street artist.
There were a few things from conservative fringe blogs, but none of the mainstream media really picked up on that narrative. The funny thing is, in the friendly blogs, it really wasn’t about my doing illegal street art, rather, it was that I had done portraits of communist people.
Now granted, those portraits are cautionary, but these people believe that presentation is endorsement. They’re just not capable of analytical thinking. I believe it was just a knee jerk reaction to my work and my usage of red and black. I think there was this idea I was a communist and so was Obama.
So I’m curious, you have so many imitators and I know some of them are your friends and some of them are expanding your work and vision politically. However, some are just ripping you off. What are your feelings about that?
First of all, I’ve been influenced by a lot of different artists, movements, and styles. Even though I feel like the way I filter those influences in my work ends up feeling uniquely like my own in the end.
However, its normal to be inspired and to build upon on the things that have made an impact creatively and culturally over the years. I believe that’s the evolution of culture. The moment something resonates commercially, people are going to try and exploit it, or maybe their just inspired. I’ve always called it the ‘solo apprenticeship’. People don’t get to work directly with an artist, they just copy it until they get it right, and then it eventually morphs into something of their own.
I don’t really begrudge that to most people, but I do feel that when corporations look just look at a style and say this is hot right now and we can monetize this. You know, that’s not cool, but its unavoidable.
If anything, it creates the pressure to always continue to push my work to stand out from the other stuff. Its pressure for me to evolve, but it also pressure for me to be much better at what I do then the people who imitate what I do.
Where do you find a balance between commercialism and activism?
To me, that’s a really important question as its difficult to do. A lot of people have this idea of art as being this sort of pure thing that happens to gifted people that have a different kind of imagination from the rest of society. Those people also love to project the idea of pure motivation on those artists and so if they do anything to try and sell it, that sort of muddies the waters and makes it less pure. in order to be the most powerful political artist or artist in general you have to be able to make a living from making your art so you can dedicate all your time to it.
For me, it even goes beyond that. In having a commercial side to what I do, well beyond just having to make a living it goes to capitalism being the language that Americans most speak and understand. So, if something is valuable to people then they want to acquire it and they’ll spend money to do it. When I first started my OBEY project, a lot of people read my writing and concepts of phenomenology and were telling me I could get a grant to do this.
I immediately said this has to effect people that normally don’t engage with art. It needs to work commercially because that means its effected those people. I mean it took years. I was broke for the first ten years of my career. It wasn’t about justifying I want to make money with what I do. Rather, it was about inserting it into pop culture in a way that wasn’t elitist or preaching to the converted.
Being commercial is essential to the concept of what I do, but it also allows me to give money back to causes I believe in and do things that don’t make any money. That wouldn’t be possible if other acts of my art weren’t commercial.
Would you consider yourself a political artist?
If your saying your political, then your never doing enough. The way I describe myself is I’m an artist with a social conscience, but mostly I want to make pictures. Yes, aspects of my work are political. Not necessarily in the content, but in the methodology.
My method of putting my work out in the street to share with people in a accessible venue that people don’t have to go somewhere intimidating like a gallery or a museum. That was political. Putting art work up in public without permission is a political act of defiance. Its saying that public space is for more then just advertising.
Is the aim of your work to instill any particular beliefs in the audience?
In the general sense, I want to encourage positive attributes of humanity; compassion, scrutiny of abuse of authority, peacefulness. These are things that are difficult to argue with as good things. Those are beliefs that shouldn’t even be an ideological argument because there’s only a few people that believe being selfish has merit.
I definitely share my opinion about specific issues, but most of my work is about encouraging people to be analytical and forming their own opinions. I have confidence that if people look deeper into things and don’t just react to talking points and broad stokes, then they’ll actually empower themselves to make good decisions for themselves and for others to improve the world.
Initially, my art work I was really about encouraging people to question their obedience conformity, and role within a societal machine. I didn’t want to discuss specific issues because I felt that when my parents tried to tell me this way or that way, I just wanted to do the opposite. So, being didactic is something I wasn’t interested in.
I can’t help but speak my mind when I feel like were seeing too much of something really undesirable or not enough of something desirable. So, I just plug my art into wherever I think it needs to be addressed.
Are you doing anything around the election this year?
No, I’m not for several reasons. For one, I think the effectiveness of the HOPE poster was it was based on a fantasy. It was literally based on hope. People felt that the Bush years were unsuccessful and dark. I feel like people wanted a change and Obama symbolized that change. As an image, it worked really well. The portrait of him was a symbol or idea.
Even though I supported Obama in 2008. I have a lot of problems with the two-party system in general. The way it fundraises is really corrupt. Everything becomes trench war fare. Things are just redacted. Its never about collaboration for the common good, or its rarely about collaboration for the common good. I think right now, things are more polarized then they ever were.
What I’ve been trying to support are things like the Occupy Movement and different organizations that are reaching for campaign finance reform. I think that democracy isn’t going to work properly until every persons vote counts the same amount and corporations can’t have a disproportioned effect on the outcome of an election or the way the issues are dealt with once someone is elected.
Are you optimistic about this Presidential election?
I definitely have some disappointments with Obama; there’s no doubt about that. However, I can chalk most of that up to sabotage by the right and the dysfunction of congress. If there is one thing that I’m very frustrated with Obama about its he hasn’t been powerfully outspoken in the way that I know he can be about issues I care about most. He’s been very couscous to sort of see which way the wind is blowing, rather then showing back bone. That’s frustrating. I accepted him to be a really great communicator even when he was on the losing end of a battle or issue he cared about, he would still try and reassure people on the right side of that battle that he stood with them, but that hasn’t happened for the most part.
Do you think that might happen if he gets re-elected to a second term?
Yeah, of course I want to see him to be re-elected as the alternative is horrific, but I’m not one of those people who thinks things have to get darker in order for people to wake up. Some of the people I talk to that are very extreme to the left and disappointed in Obama are saying things like “well maybe a Romney/Ryan presidency is a wake up call that people need”. Yeah, but that’s like saying was the holocaust a wake up call people needed in order to realize that Hitler was a jerk. There’s devastating consequences to some of this stuff.
The one thing that’s really important though is to not be defeatist about it. If Obama is re-elected, then that’s better then Romney being elected. Either way, I think anyone who has the power to effect public attitudes and support things that are outside of the political system but which could put external pressure on politicians then there going to have to do that no matter who’s president.
I think that’s the sad thing about peoples expectations for Obama. I knew he wasn’t going to be the magic bullet. I knew that all the things that I felt I needed to do under Bush would probably be things I still needed to do under Obama. A lot of people’s attitudes are “hey, I worked hard for three months supporting Obama and pulled the levers at the polls. Now, I’ll sit back and let him fix the country”. That just isn’t how it works. It takes constant diligence because most of the country is so complacent.
If more people were engaged and paid attention to the issues it would definitely make it easier for the people that do pay attention and do feel the urgency to try and do good things, but that just isn’t how the world works I guess.
Sound & Vision
October 19—November 4, 2012