Vandalized Vandalism: A Healthy Cultural Conversation
Shepard Fairey may not be as big as Banksy, nor has he run for public office so we haven’t gotten a peak at his tax records, but it is quite possible that he is part of the top 1% at this point in his career. Whether you are a fan or not, what makes this image so arresting is that it spotlights the paradox his art and his life now embody. He has championed anti-status quo rebellion for his whole career, but now he is part of the upper class. He has made a huge amount of money standing up to the man, but now he is the man. He has even donated designs and spoken strongly in favor of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and yet the contradictions of his life versus his message create a distrust of his art even in those ranks.
Historically, successful artists have had to deal with this kind of turn of the tides of public opinion. The people that once championed the under dog, now attack the alpha dog. The public is especially suspect, if the artist espoused a revolutionary stance, but then seems to be settling into some sort of complacency. In any case, it always depends on the critic and their interpretation of the artist’s intentions and of course the artist’s actions. To much of the public, despite his financial success, Shepard Fairey has been perceived as a hardcore street artist for two decades, who hasn’t given up and is still doing good work on the street by taking risks to spread a message that challenges the dominant paradigm. He has even garnered respect from many graffiti writers, sometimes the harshest critics, for his daring spots, all-world saturation, and well-executed designs.
Concurrently though, he has also been an extremely successful businessman and a self-proclaimed capitalist. He deals in populist posters, fine art canvases, high-end design work, and fashion. When anyone becomes rich and famous, they may become an icon to attack rather than celebrate. He has donated poster designs and stated that he supports the Occupy Wall Street movement for the cultural conversation that it promotes, so to him this kind of reaction to his art and life could be interpreted as a healthy reaction to his career trajectory.
This photo of a defaced Fairey wheat paste is not the first, nor the harshest visual commentary to be applied directly to his work. Adek and friends bombed the whole bottom half of his Houston street mural last year, making a brutal statement, questioning Fairey’s status.
Like Katsu’s massive fire extinguisher tag across the side of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art the week before the Art in the Streets exhibition opened, a statement like Adek’s may be perceived as a stronger anti-status quo statement because it says that the artist doesn’t even care if the art establishment supports them. It’s pure rebellion, pure subculture, pure graffiti, pure street. Not that one is necessarily better than the other, each voice has it’s own place and influence on culture, but one could be seen as purer, because financial gain is taken out of the equation.
But who knows, maybe Fairey sees this all as part of the “healthy conversation” that he believes street art and graffiti should promote at the cultural level. It must still hurt though when a lot of hard work is trashed. But if the purpose of his street art is to spark people to think and take action, then his work is doing its job.
Text: Daniel Feral
Photo: Paul Reubens
Daniel Feral is the co-founder of Pantheon Projects. Visit the Pantheon Projects facebook page.