If you’ve been following the dust-up over artist Shepard Fairey, you know that: a) the Associated Press is upset that Fairey didn’t ask permission to use a photo of Barack Obama taken by an AP photographer to create his now iconic “Hope” poster; b) Fairey sued AP over the matter before AP had a chance to sue him, and c) Fairey is now the most famous artist in the country.
The issue that’s raised its moldy, misshapen head in this squabble is the “fair use” doctrine of U.S. Copyright law, and whether Fairey’s use of AP photographer Mannie Garcia’s photo constitutes a violation of it. Fairey admits that the photo was the basis for his poster, but is arguing that he “transformed” the image into a “stunning, abstracted, and idealized visual image that creates powerful new meaning and conveys a radically different message,” one that amplified and extended the image’s impact all the way to the cover of Time magazine.
Fairey says he brought the suit “to clarify the rights of parties, and to refute the AP’s baseless assertions of copyright infringement finally and definitively.” The case is interesting because the AP has a history of bullying people over copyright issues, and Fairey has a history of blatantly appropriating other people’s work for his own purposes without crediting anyone but himself. The two deserve each other.
As usual, the larger issue here has nothing to do with artistic integrity or giving the AP’s Mannie Garcia the recognition he deserves. It’s all about money and control. Fairey’s posterization of Garcia’s photo went viral, and AP wants its cut (though Fairey claims he hasn’t made any money directly from the poster image). Fairey wants the freedom to build his parasitic pop-art franchise with no copyright strings attached—strings that are spelled out fairly clearly for such uses as comedy, satire, or social commentary, but are a bit more vague for art. This despite the fact that Duschamp-inspired artists from Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Prince have legitimized appropriation to the point where it is now about as revolutionary as a Pepsi commercial. In fact, it has also been alleged that the new Pepsi logo is a blatant rip-off of the Obama campaign logo. Everyone, it seems, is doing it.
And in the digital age, that really is the crux of the problem. What irks many people about Fairey’s Obama poster affair, I suspect, is the recognition that literally anyone can posterize a photo Fairey-style with a click of their mouse. In fact, a website set up by Paste magazine encourages people do exactly that, with any photo they want. Art, many people feel, should involve some sort of sweat equity; there should be some work involved, whether it’s chipping away at a piece of marble for five years or spending two weeks in the basement inhaling paint fumes. At some level, we all do a bit of mental calculus about how much labor went into a work of art, and that labor is factored into our sense of the work’s value. It may not determine the value, but it’s a factor. Bottom line, what frosts people in this case is the feeling that Fairey got lucky—really lucky—and isn’t being very gracious about it.
If Fairey were honest, he’d have to admit that some ineffable quality in Garcia’s photo inspired him to use it as the basis for his poster. The gentlemanly thing to do would have been to ask permission to use the photo in the first place, or, after the fact, acknowledge the crazy serendipity of it all and throw a bone to the photographer. If, as the saying goes, genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, give the photographer one percent for his part, and at least pretend you did a little work yourself. But Fairey isn’t a gentleman and that isn’t the way he rolls; he’s got his tagger street cred to protect, after all. Either that or he read too much Foucault at the Rhode Island School of Design and convinced himself that the “author” of anything is irrelevant.
Now, I happen to think Fairey should win this battle, because if he loses, half the artists and museums in this country are going to be fending off appropriation lawsuits. Besides, when you start asking how much of the original picture is left in the poster, the only thing left really is the angle of Obama’s face—everything else has been colored, flattened, or texturized. And, as the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl reminds us in the latest issue, Obama’s face was cut out of a larger photo in which he was sitting next to George Clooney at a 2006 National Press Club event. In the original photo, Obama isn’t staring off into space envisioning America’s return to glory under his divinely inspired leadership; he’s answering a question posed by someone at the event—a question he’s answered roughly 3 million times by the looks of it.
So, Fairey cropped the photo, posterized it, put the word “Hope” underneath it, and it happened to become the iconic image of Barack Obama’s presidential run, the most memorable (and improbable) ascent to power in American history.
Sure, you could have done it. Anyone could have. But you didn’t. Fairey did, and he deserves
some credit for being at the right place, at the right time, with the right image—an image that,by the way, is distinctly different from the photograph upon which it is based. What’s disappointing is that Fairey’s poster isn’t more interesting, artistically. The thing is so derivative it could have been created by Lehman Brothers. Furthermore, it gives the whole notion of appropriation an even worse name than it already has, and makes artists look like hucksters who are out for a cheap, easy buck.
Next time, Fairey should follow The Dude’s always-sage advice