Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Criticism and Arrest of Shepard Fairey Sparks Conspiracy Theories

The arrest of Shepard Fairey in Boston and recent mainstream criticism of Fairey’s art has sparked a number of conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories involving Shepard Fairey range from anonymous comments left by individuals on blogs to lengthy articles posted on SuperTouch and Wooster Collective. I suppose it is time to wear a tin foil hat-- or perhaps it is time for certain individuals to realize that Shepard Fairey is a controversial artist who openly admits to the illegal aspects of some of his work and that debate and criticism is bound to occur concerning his ethics and process.

The Shepard Fairey conspiracy theories involve several angles. Some feel that criticism of Shepard Fairey’s art and ethics is nothing more-- as SuperTouch assumes --than a “widespread and baseless internet campaign to smear Shepard Fairey”. Others, as mentioned on Wooster Collective, feel that his recent arrest was politically motivated-- a way for Boston police to incite a riot in order to get even with the Mayor of Boston over pay issues. Some comments suggest that the mainstream art world is trying to “keep Shepard Fairey down” while others suggest that Shepard Fairey is the victim of an attack on “fair use” spearheaded by the Associated Press.

The conspiracy theories don't stop there-- some individuals have promoted the idea, based on comments left on the The Huffington Post and Boston Globe, that recent criticism and the arrest of Shepard Fairey is nothing more than anti-Obama spin. In fact, some have suggested that President Obama should "pardon" Shepard Fairey of any crimes and make his work "exempt" from copyright and trademark laws in the future. In other words, some view criticism of Shepard Fairey as being criticism against President Obama’s administration and vision of ‘change‘-- and that Fairey should be "protected" because he helped spur Obama's 'change'. Some of those same individuals have suggested that McCain supporters are behind the negative criticism of Shepard Fairey or that Republicans in general are behind it. I’m certain that other conspiracy theories will arise in the coming weeks.

So far each conspiracy theory lacks one crucial factor-- they all fail to suggest that maybe Shepard Fairey should be responsible for his actions and choices. I think President Obama would support the idea of Shepard Fairey taking responsibility. Instead, these conspiracy theories project excuses for Shepard Fairey. Is it wrong to suggest that Shepard Fairey should be responsible for how he creates his art or for where he places it? Is it wrong for individuals to be concerned when videos posted on ObeyGiant and elsewhere have shown Fairey and his crew speeding off in cars in order to avoid cops in heavy populated areas? If he failed to appear in court in 2000 shouldn’t he be held accountable in the same way that any other citizen would be?

Furthermore, if Shepard Fairey places himself in situations that force individuals to question his ethics-- such as infringing on the copyright of Rene Mederos or sending cease-and-desist letters to artists who parody his widely known images under “fair use” while at the same time defending himself under "fair use" against the Associated Press -- should he not take some responsibility and own up to questions that have been asked of him? After all, we expect politicians and CEOs to be responsible-- so why not artists? Why not Shepard Fairey?

The truth is that there isn’t a mass conspiracy against Shepard Fairey-- in fact, he is to blame for much of the negativity that shadows his career due to his choices and failure to take responsibility for his actions and words. The contradictions are his own-- not created. Instead, there is a lot of paranoia going around and much of it has been spread by longtime supporters of Shepard Fairey. These individuals have spread conspiracy theories on the Internet in order to protect their interest by creating an ‘us versus them‘ scenario among fans of the artist. In other words, they strive to rally support from Shepard Fairey's fan base in order to contain negative criticism and promote the idea that Fairey is a rebel facing unwarranted opposition. After all, that image-- that persona -- helps to sell shirts and other merchandise.

True, you could say my opinion is a conspiracy theory in itself. However, there is consistent evidence to back my claim. Almost all of the major supporters who have fostered conspiracy theories involving Shepard Fairey have a vested interest in his career or a shared interest in his view of “fair use” and other issues-- such as promoting specific causes, selling specific magazines or merchandise, and promoting specific artists or theories about art. These individuals could lose ground in their respected businesses if Shepard Fairey ends up being ridiculed or loathed by the masses. He is their cash cow.

In that sense, one could say that Shepard Fairey is a problematic figurehead for some of these individuals. If Fairey is a success their business is a success-- if Fairey is a failure their work will be much harder-- he can't be replaced with the same momentum. In other words, Shepard Fairey is a bet that can result in great returns-- a gamble that can make or break their fortune. Thus, it is no surprise to me that the battle cry of support-- these specific conspiracy theories and the viral nature in which they spread -- often originate from their respected websites.

My point is that the words of Jamie O’Shea (SuperTouch) and others who strive to demonize individuals who are critical of Shepard Fairey’s ethics-- or who make up excuses for Fairey's lack of responsibility by placing him in the role of being a victim of “the Man”, “the system”, “conservatives”, “Republicans” or the “elite” -- only do so because of the position they would be in if Shepard Fairey is viewed as a “hack” or “fraud” by the majority of the public. Shepard Fairey’s failure in the eyes of the public would be bad for their business.

Needless to say, the defense of Shepard Fairey-- such as the SuperTouch article -- often appears to be a form of damage control. Under the surface it is nothing more than an attempt to protect a product. For example, the SuperTouch article posted by O’Shea was published on the same day that Dan Wasserman posted an article titled ‘How Phony is Shepard Fairey?’ on the Boston Globe website-- the same day that many were introduced to criticism of Shepard Fairey that they had not been aware of because the mainstream media had failed to report on it up until that time. Wasserman’s article focused on Mark Vallen’s criticism of Shepard Fairey-- it was the first time that Vallen’s critique had been mentioned on a mainstream news source that I'm aware of. It was long overdue. It comes as no surprise that the Fairey camp was quick to respond in kind.

The article by SuperTouch was posted days before Shepard Fairey’s opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston-- it ended up as a headline on Shepard Fairey’s ObeyGiant website within minutes of being posted by J O’Shea on SuperTouch. The article by Jamie O’Shea opened with the following introduction:

“As underground art phenomenon Shepard Fairey’s first major museum retrospective prepares to open at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on February 6th, we feel the need to address some of the vicious and unfounded rumors surrounding the originality of Shepard’s artwork that have been floated online in recent years. Though written by a variety of different detractors for a questionable array of reasons, the common thread binding them all—aside from a thinly masked veneer of obvious envy in most cases—is a nearly ubiquitous lack of understanding of the artist’s use of appropriated imagery in his work and the longstanding historical precedent for this mode of creative expression.”.

The introduction alone is a vehicle for damage control and a source for fostering ideas of conspiracy. Again, it should be noted that the SuperTouch article was published on the same day that Dan Wasserman posted an article titled ‘How Phony is Shepard Fairey?’ on the Boston Globe website. Wasserman’s article focused on Mark Vallen’s criticism of Shepard Fairey-- which Vallen had posted in 2007. One could say that the SuperTouch article was more of a response to Wasserman's article than it was to Vallen's critique itself. Damage control.

The main target of Jamie O’Shea’s conspiracy theory is Mark Vallen-- an artist who has been critical of Shepard Fairey’s ethics for years. Oddly enough, Vallen’s article-- titled Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey-- ranks on the first page of Google searches for ‘Shepard Fairey‘. In other words, many people have read the article long before Wasserman mentioned it on the Boston Globe website-- dare I say that could suggest that perhaps many people agree with the views of Mark Vallen? In other words, one could suggest that many desire to see Shepard Fairey take responsibility and to be accountable when he is wrong.

Jamie O’Shea and other Shepard Fairey conspiracy theorists would have you believe that only a handful of people are critical of Shepard Fairey. After all, O’Shea and SuperTouch-- where Shepad Fairey is also an author-- suggests that Mark Vallen and other “detractors” have orchestrated a smear campaign due to being jealous or bitter of Shepard Fairey. Are we to assume that Shepard Fairey is beyond criticism? Are all art critics jealous or bitter if their words about an artist are harsh? Are we to believe that only a small band of individuals question the ethics of Shepard Fairey? To that I would say-- making demons out of people who are critical of Shepard Fairey’s art and practice is not exactly the best way to defend the validity of his work-- or the importance of your business.

Jamie O’Shea has long been a crucial figure in the hype surrounding Shepard Fairey. Thus, his words come off more as concern for his investment than anything else. To put it bluntly, Jamie O’Shea does not want people to view Shepard Fairey as an unethical artist-- an artist who steals from minority artists or social causes for his own financial gain and a stairway to fame as suggested by Mark Vallen. O’Shea and others want to foster the idea that Shepard Fairey is a hero of the people and a revolutionary of visual art. Thus, it makes sense that he and others would want to chip away at Vallen's character and his critique-- to silence criticism of Shepard Fairey before it grows out of hand.

When thinking of this one must put everything in perspective-- indeed, one must question everything. Jamie O’Shea was one of the first individuals to publish reviews and interviews with Shepard Fairey. He has also curated and co-curated exhibits involving Shepard Fairey's art.
Different sources state that O’Shea works as an art consultant for corporate collections-- connecting artists in his favor with corporate art collections. If people question the authenticity of Shepard Fairey they may very well question the authenticity of Jamie O’Shea's opinion and business ventures. Thus, it makes sense that he would want to spread conspiracy theories about a "widespread and baseless internet campaign to smear Shepard Fairey," in order to combat criticism of Shepard Fairey-- his interest, investment, and product.

Consider this an open debate about the responsibility-- or lack thereof -- of Shepard Fairey and the conspiracy theories that place him in a ‘victim’ role. Consider it an open debate about the commercialization of street art-- feel free to discuss ethics-- or the lack thereof. By all means, comment if you feel that my approach is not ethical or responsible.

Links of Interest:

Was Shepard Fairey Arrested To Embarrass The Mayor of Boston? - A First Hand Account -- Wooster Collective: a celebration of street art
http://www.woostercollective.com/2009/02/shepard_faireys_arrest_in_boston_a_first.html
Finally: Shepard Fairey Conspiracy Porn -- Bostonist
http://bostonist.com/2009/02/10/shepard-fairey-bpd-conspiracy.php

How Phony is Shepard Fairey? -- Boston Globe
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/outofline/2009/02/how_phony_is_shepard_fairey.html
Obey Plagiarist Shepard Fairey: A Critique by Artist Mark Vallen
http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm

The Medium Is The Message: Shepard Fairey And The Art of Appropriation -- SuperTouch
http://www.supertouchart.com/2009/02/02/editorial-the-medium-is-the-message-shepard-fairey-and-the-art-of-appropriation/#respond

Jamie O’Shea Obeys Shepard Fairey by Taking Jabs at Mark Vallen -- Myartspace Blog
http://www.myartspace.com/blog/2009/02/jamie-oshea-obeys-shepard-fairey-by.html

I Predict a Fairey Right? -- Beautiful Crime
http://beautifulcrime.com/news/i-predict-a-fairey-riot/

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
myartspace.com
www.myartspace.com

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rene Mederos was a COMMUNIST, and therefore should not have been compensated for any alleged "infringement". He made propaganda art for the People of Cuba and Fidel Castro's COMMUNIST government. If anything, Fairey should have given compensation to the government of Cuba. It's mind boggling that Mederos's family even had the balls to speak out about this in the first place.

AnnoyingMouse said...

Brian, we know this issue is the "Hot Topic" of the art world right now...no denyin' that. There are many sides of the debate, many ways to look at it...many aspects at stake (copyright, ethics, etc.). However, there seems to be a rather large amount of attention being paid to Shepard Fairey. At least on this blog. What about the great artist interviews that you used to post? What about the excellent "Tips O' The Trade" articles and links that used to grace the electronic pages of this blog? While it is important to keep one hand on the proverbial pulse of art world news, there comes a time when the audience (fans?) craves variety. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that perhaps it's time to focus more on other matters.

That being said, I do give you props for following up on the Great Fairey Saga of Ought Nine.

Anonymous said...

Your criticism of Shep came up in some discussions at the ICA. I don't agree with every position you have on the issue but you have done a good job at pointing out hypocrisy. The commercial street art world can't keep up the act for much longer. They took something wonderful and turned it into a way to sale skateboards,video games, and counterculture.

Balhatain said...

Anon said, "Rene Mederos was a COMMUNIST, and therefore should not have been compensated for any alleged "infringement"."

By implication I suppose that you would think that Fairey's art supports communism? If that is the case you are wrong. Regardless, Mederos did more than just work for the Cuban government.

Just so you know-- Shepard Fairey acknowledged the copyright infringement after an art historian contacted the website where 'Cuban Rider' was sold. The shirt was quickly pulled from production and distribution. I don't think the family pressed for payment-- Fairey just kind of slipped it to them.

AnnoyingMouse said, "there seems to be a rather large amount of attention being paid to Shepard Fairey. At least on this blog. What about the great artist interviews that you used to post? What about the excellent "Tips O' The Trade" articles and links that used to grace the electronic pages of this blog?"

First, thanks for your kind words. I've still been posting interviews. In fact, I'm working on five at this time that will be posted soon. If anything you have just noticed an increase in posts-- posts that happened to focus on this issue. It had to be done. It was long overdue.

Just so you know-- I'm going to be posting 10 art advice topics soon. There will likely be some guest advice articles posted as well.

Anon said, "Your criticism of Shep came up in some discussions at the ICA. I don't agree with every position you have on the issue but you have done a good job at pointing out hypocrisy."

I don't expect people to agree with everything I say. I expect people to do their own research. That is why I include links that reflect different view points.

I've offered people close to this story several chances to give their side of the story-- to stress their point. Unfortunately, I received responses like "Yawn" and "F.U."-- others acted as if they had been given a hush order. If people are closed minded and unwilling to talk there really is not much that can be done other than to report as I see it based on my own research.

One thing I've noticed from this is that people don't like it when contradictions in the street art or underground art scene are pointed out. I've pointed out problems and contradictions with the mainstream art world since 2006 and never once received threats over those opinions. It is strange.

Just so you know-- I'm not against "fair use", street art, underground art, or urban art. Some individuals are pushing rumors on blogs and art forums that I'm against appropriation and against these forms of art. I think my interview series speaks the truth. I support "fair use" as it is intended to be-- limited. I do not hide the fact that I'm a strong advocate for copyright protection.

As for street art, underground art, and urban art-- if I was against any why on earth would I interview artists such as Mark Jenkins, BASK, Anthony Lister, Chet Zar, Carrie Ann Baade, Sas Christian, Travis Louie and so on? If I were an "elitist" of the mainstream art world why would I bother to interview artists such as Charles Thomson of the Stuckists?

Just something to think about.

Balhatain said...

I said, "I've pointed out problems and contradictions with the mainstream art world since 2006 and never once received threats over those opinions. It is strange."

I take that back-- I did receive some threats over the Bill Henson controversy.

Tommy Gun said...

I left a comment about Baxter Orr on the Fair Use Project blog. I posted it on a entry about Shepard Fairey by Anthony Falzone. I asked why they are defending Shepard Fairey's right to fair use knowing that Fairey tried to scare Baxter Orr with legal threats when Orr claimed fair use with his parody of Obey Giant. I tried to reply to another commenter today and a message popped up saying I was banned from commenting. I guess they don't want people to know about Baxter Orr. Anthony Falzone is a hypocrite just like Shepard Fairey. I read some of his blog posts and one was about right wing wacko Michael Savage trying to stop CAIR from posting Savage quotes on their site. Falzone said that Savage should accept free speech since he makes his living off of it. "The right to speak and the right to criticize speech you don't like are equally important.You'd think that Savage of all people, who depends on free speech to do what he does for a living, would understand that." I think it is funny that Falzone would say something like that about Michael Savage and then end up having the Fair Use Project defending Shepard Fairey. Maybe they don't know that Fairey sent cease and desist letters to Baxter Orr and called Orr a parasite. Michael Savage and Shepard Fairey share something in common because they both uphold their rights and try to stomp the rights of other people. Shame on Fairey and shame on Falzone. Free speech does not matter to The Fair Use project unless it is speech they want on their blog.

Tommy Gun said...

I left a comment about Baxter Orr on the Fair Use Project blog. I posted it on a entry about Shepard Fairey by Anthony Falzone. I asked why they are defending Shepard Fairey's right to fair use knowing that Fairey tried to scare Baxter Orr with legal threats when Orr claimed fair use with his parody of Obey Giant. I tried to reply to another commenter today and a message popped up saying I was banned from commenting. I guess they don't want people to know about Baxter Orr. Anthony Falzone is a hypocrite just like Shepard Fairey. I read some of his blog posts and one was about right wing wacko Michael Savage trying to stop CAIR from posting Savage quotes on their site. Falzone said that Savage should accept free speech since he makes his living off of it. "The right to speak and the right to criticize speech you don't like are equally important.You'd think that Savage of all people, who depends on free speech to do what he does for a living, would understand that." I think it is funny that Falzone would say something like that about Michael Savage and then end up having the Fair Use Project defending Shepard Fairey. Maybe they don't know that Fairey sent cease and desist letters to Baxter Orr and called Orr a parasite. Michael Savage and Shepard Fairey share something in common because they both uphold their rights and try to stomp the rights of other people. Shame on Fairey and shame on Falzone. Free speech does not matter to The Fair Use project unless it is speech they want on their blog.

TSL said...

I love myartspace blog. That is all I have to write.

Mr. Sean said...

Great piece, i was going to write something about how obnoxious i find Fairey this morning, but now here's this. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I keep reading these liberal art critics comparing Shepard Fairey to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince. Reading their words you know that they don't even know who Shepard Fairey is and that they are commenting in support of him because it is popular to do that. Heaven forbid one of them muster enough courage to go against the Obama wackos in Chelsea or Boston. I think it is stupid to compare Shepard Fairey to these notable artists because he has not proven himself yet. Lets see if people still report on him after Obama drops in the polls. If his only claim to fame is Obama I'm afraid his career will ride on if Obama is successful or not. Warhol did not have to cling to a politician for stardom and a quick buck. Some of us knew Andy. Fairey IS NOT Andy. He never will be. SHEPARD FAIREY IS NOT ANDY WARHOL!Calling him the Thomas Kinkade of angsty youth rebellion is more like it.