Mark Radcliffe praises Obama “HOPE” artist Shepard Fairey for finally admitting he was wrong.
I’ll admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of Shepard Fairey.
But I might be becoming one now.
USA Today explains how yesterday he plead guilty in a federal court to charges of contempt, stemming from a case involving his use of an AP photo for the famous Obama “Hope” poster of 2008.
With this plea, he not only saved the courts from an unnecessarily long and tax-payer-money-consuming trial, but he very forthrightly declared the awfulness of his actions.
“Violating the court’s trust was the worst thing I have ever done in my life,” said Fairey, 42, of Los Angeles. “I was ashamed as I did all these things, and I remain ashamed.”
This confession is not just the admission that he did make unauthorized use of a photo (which he denied for a a long time), but that he also destroyed evidence and falsified documents in order to cover up his crime.
What makes it a truly noteworthy confession is that it comes from a man who’s spent a lot of his career denying that a) his work was derivative or plagiaristic, and b) that it even mattered if it was.
It’s the most public and full confession we’ve seen from a public figure/ artist and quasi celebrity in quite some time.
And it comes as a great surprise to me, because it shows what I’ve always felt he lacked as an artist: integrity.
To me the quality of an artist’s work depends upon the originality of the content and message, and if not that, at least the insight or enjoyment it provides us as viewers. And while I thought it was certainly provocative to look at, to me, Shepard Fairey’s art was always highly derivative, and I never really felt that there was a strong point of view to it.
Even the “Obey” stuff seemed a bit confusing to me. It was allegedly a commentary on how consumerism commands us to “obey” its trends, but what the hell did Andre the Giant have to do with consumerism? If anything he was exploited by the man, too. (And now exploited again by Shep Fairey.) What I think really happened, is Shep was just messing around as a young artist, had no real “vision” behind the piece, started placing it everywhere, and when it suddenly gained momentum, he had to retrofit a philosophy onto it. I can forgive that.
But it was just part of what seems like a career of ripping off other people’s work. This most compelling indictment of how much Shep “borrowed” from other artists (without crediting them) comes from this essay by Mark Vallen, who shows us countless examples of how Shep’s art is obviously derived from others. And the real crime from Shep’s re-appropriations is because he was copying relatively unknown artists. When Wharhol re-appropriates a famous Marilyn Monroe photo, we all know what we’re seeing. But when an artist gets famous for art that we don’t realize is borrowing from other people’s art, I have a problem with it. The little guy gets trampled.
But I think I lost all respect when he joined the fashion industry and started putting his “Obey” artwork on clothes and selling it at pretty high prices. I don’t begrudge an artist for trying to make a living off his art, but I do take issue with someone who allegedly stands against consumerism, and then contradicts himself by becoming a cog in the wheel of the overpriced fashion industry. He crossed the line from artist to capitalist.
And ultimately, his inability to admit the derivative quality of his work hit an all-time (and almost comical) high when he tried to deny the obviousness of his use of the AP photo for the Obama poster.
To me, it was just confusing: we all knew Shep was using someone’s photo to create his piece, and that’s fine—as long as you give the creator of the original work credit, too. But he a) foolishly didn’t ask permission to re-appropriate the photo (which I’m sure would have been given, though perhaps for a fee), and b) more foolishly denied he used it, even though any idiot could tell that’s exactly what he did.
So with this confession and guilty plea, I feel he’s become the man of integrity I’d wished he’d always been. It all comes with great personal cause for a man who was once the darling of the street-art movement, and I’m impressed that he’s not only willing to pay the price for his crimes, but is also his own most vocal critic.
To me this is a massive change in character, and one that I highly applaud. It could be said the Shep didn’t need to be nearly as public in his confession, but it’s clear to me that (finally) really wanted to send a message: that stealing—and lying about it—are profoundly wrong. And he’s willing to flout himself publicly at great personal harm to make the point. I swear, he could have probably just settled the suit out of court, and then later made no actual public comment here, but he went the extra mile, calling himself out with the pointiest of fingers, and became his own most vocal critic.
Maybe it’s because he’s just older (and wiser?) now. Maybe it’s because he’s a father now. Maybe it’s because he has diabetes now and is reportedly losing his vision and is more humbled by life. But I’m glad he’s willing to “man up” and admit his wrongs.
Some might say, “So what, he finally did what the rest of us do every day—take responsibility for his actions.” But while, yes, I wish he’d been doing this all along (I would have liked his art a lot more if he had), I think this takes a bigger step of courage. He wasn’t just admitting a crime, he was admitting a crime he staunchly denied for a long time. And he was high on a drug that most of us have never had the privilege of trying—massive public adulation. And by admitting this wrong, he was willing to go off this drug. And very abruptly.
This last quotation I’ll offer to me gets at the crux of what it is to finally live honorably after living a life of deceit for too long.
“I was and am ashamed that I had done these things, and I knew I should have corrected my actions, but as time passed I found it more and more difficult to admit my actions,” he said.
It’s one thing to come forward admit you’ve done the wrong thing. But it’s much harder (and more embarrassing) when the world accuses you of doing the wrong thing, then you vehemently insist you did no such thing, and then come full-circle and admit you actually did exactly that.
So I say to you Shepard: good on ya. I wish you’d done it much earlier, as I would have been easier for you, and for those of us who are still glad you created the Obama poster. But I’m glad you did it eventually. As a writer and singer/ songwriter, I appreciate that you helped finally support the message that it’s wrong to “borrow” another’s art without crediting it. And that you can’t live honorably if you’re not living honestly.
Let’s hope there’s a legion of young artists out there who are taking notes.
Photo courtesy of jetheriot
Shep Fairey was a participant at on of the very first Good Men Project Book Events. Here is what he had to say about men and goodness: