Let's count Obama poster-boy Shepard Fairey's current skirmishes: he's preemptively sued the AP over its copyright claims; he pleaded not guilty to Boston graffiti charges; and hipster literary journal N+1 thinks he's a sell-out.
The AP has been threatening to sue Fairey ever since it learned that Fairey based his illustration on a 2006 photo by AP photographer Manny Garcia; with his suit, Fairey has beaten the AP to the courthouse in an effort to have his name cleared of copyright infringement. Fairey's lawyers argued that it was a transformative use of Garcia's photograph, and therefore not an infringement on the AP's copyright. The nation's official tastemakers seem to agree: On January 19, a day before Obama's inaugural, the National Portrait Gallery exhibited the image.
This same day, Fairey is also defending himself against charges of vandalism filed by Boston police, who arrested Fairey last week before he was set to guest-DJ at a party celebrating his new exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art. He is pleading not guilty.
Wait a second: If Fairey is not guilty of vandalism, is he also guilty of not being a legitimate street artist? Before the Obama poster, he was already famous for his guerrillia-art "Obey Giant" campaign, which featured images of wrestler Andre the Giant and the word "Obey."
N+1, everyone's favorite unemployable-lit-major complaint magazine, has accused Fairey of being, gasp, a sellout for commercializing "Obey Giant" and "Hope," and creating a new Obama image for the cover of Time:
Mind, in terms of profit, Fairey is doing just fine. Once his work became recognizable enough to be sought after as an accessory, he took to the definitive quick-money device of the aughts: the t-shirt. Other accessories followed, and "Obey!" the clothing line was born. Simply put, what Shepard Fairey is now doing is no longer art. It's not even art about advertising. It is advertising. And it's boring.
Actually, the insistence that artists be poor and marginalized is what seems boring. Fairey's company, Obey Giant Art, is part of his lawsuit against the AP. Without the sales from those T-shirts, would he be able to defend his fair-use rights against the mighty newswire, backed by its owners, which include most of the newspapers in America? With his curiously well-timed court appearances, Fairey seems to be taking his creative work to a new tableau, which included the art world, the media, and the legal system. In this, he truly gives us hope.
(Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)