Don't Grow Up to Be Shepard Fairey

I think it's bullshit that Shepard Fairey is getting sued for his use of the now-iconic image of Obama. I also think Shepard Fairey personally embodies bullshit. I said below that the fragmentation and democratization of media production has made it harder than ever for a self-selected power elite to control the terms of debate. I do believe it's true, on net. But I have to say “on net” because of people like Shepard Fairey.
He went from absurdist anarchist vandalism, to a lucrative online business uncreatively ripping off other people's designs and selling them as his own, to creating powerful and effective political propaganda to help arm a comformist virtuouso of establishment institutions with nuclear weapons. From small-scale guerilla street art to a running dog of the American political establishment in no time flat. How does this happen?
My guess is that, as Fairey aged, he grew tired of impotent gestures of resistance and wanted to “make a difference.” Fringe protest is sexy, in certain circles, but it remains that only the people with power have power. So there is a temptation to rationalize away one's prior convictions about the corruption of the system, and convince oneself that this guy, he's screcretly one of us and he's cleverly infiltrating the power elite, and so it's OK to shift from satirizing the aesthetics of mass psychology and control to actually producing it in earnest.
If arts scenes, blogs, web video, social networking etc. are largely coopted into producing propaganda for major political parties, then widening access to the means of symbolic production will have failed pathetically to achieve its liberatory potential. In fact, it is all the more insidious when well-equipped citizens use their own time, creativity, and resources simply to consolidate the stultifying terms of Americans politics–to voluntarily join the existing powers in manufacturing consent. That's why I consider the efflorescence of homespun Obama art and media during the campaign a regrettable failure of American grassroots culture-making, and proof of the the still-firm grip of elite opinion-making on artistic imagination. Obama supporters truly won the war of hip lithographs last year. I'm afraid that many of these artists, who would like to think they are no one's useful idiot, consider this some kind of victory.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center