Notes from “Something Borrowed, Something True”

I was just at the ICA again today. The Boston AIGA organized an all-day event at the ICA to promote dialogue around Shepard Fairey’s work and its place in society. The event was titled “Design as Social Agent” (there was a silly point during a talk where Elliot Earls could not remember what it was and called it something generic). I arrived in time to catch the last talk, which was called “Something Borrowed, Something True.” The topic was “appropriation” in the art and design worlds, and it took the form of a panel discussion moderated by Kevin Grady, with Steven Heller, Elliot Earls, and Nicholas Blechman.

Before the talk started, I had just enough time to give the Fairey galleries another pass, and in doing so I realized that unlike all the other shows I’d gone to see multiple times at the ICA, I seemed to get no new revelations out of seeing the works for a second time. They already felt staid, beating the same old horse. Somewhat jaded and impatient, I went to the talk wondering what kind of academic overanalysis I’d just signed up for. As it turned out, the talk was great. It restored my interest in the topic of Shepard Fairey and his impact and snapped me out of this petulant jadedness about art/design I’ve been feeling a lot lately.

Some of my notes and observations (in no particular order):

Words There are a lot of words with slightly different meanings being used to discuss appropriation, some more condemning than others. (Homage, borrowing, inspiration, rip off, plagiarism…) But generally “appropriation” seems to be the accepted term in the art/design world for broadly describing the full range of actions involving using other people’s work in one’s own.

Familiarity Heller thinks we can’t all be individuals in the true sense, that there is no pure originality. Everything can be deconstructed in some way into borrowed parts. (I think, for the most part, I agree with this.) Everything is ultimately composed of the familiar, and that is how we, as a shared culture, are able to appreciate works of creativity.

Individualism Earls, who is very much an individualist, thinks that central to the discussion of appropriation is the idea of whether you are an intrinsic or extrinsic creator/author. For him, the objective is always to suprise oneself (and in doing so, also find what surprises others) rather than building upon existing forces in the Postmodern sense. He wants to verge towards the unfamiliar, and it seems that the general opinion is that Earls’ work succeeds in doing so. (Grady jokingly said on Mars, Earls’ work was probably old hat and he’d be derided as being a copyist, but to us Earthlings they sure look alien.)

(Earls and Heller, to my disappointment, did not get into an Epic Battle on stage. Professionalism must have gotten in the way. But there was def. some tension between the 2. I know Heller has taken shots at Earls “lack of discipline” many times in the past in major design pubs. And Earls of course just thumbs his nose at it all.)

Medium or message? It is important to remember that not all work involving appropriation is about appropriation itself. To this extent, it is not always useful to compare Fairey’s work to Warhol’s. They had completely different agendas. It’s like judging painters based on their brushwork technique alone. Appropriation is a technique and only sometimes it is the subject. One could definitely argue that Fairey’s use of appropriation is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Art v. design Heller differentiates between art and design in the following way: art is personally expressive, so you are allowed to focus on discovering the “unfamiliar,” whereas design is not personally based. “You have to deal with the nitty gritty of familiarity” as a designer.

Appropriateness Earls differentiates between what is “appropriate” appropriation (ahem) and inappropriate appropriation. The latter is characterized by exploitative motives, usually perpetrated by a party of power against or using a party without power. That is immoral and definitely not good appropriation. However if the motive is not exclusively exploitative, and if it used by a party without power to comment on, subvert, or contribute anything of social or cultural value, then it is not necessarily immoral. Earls says (and I agree) that for the most part, “there is a common sense element.”

Precedent Heller and Earls both agree that appropriation has been used for years and is nothing new. And precedent helps bunches when you are being sued.

Obama poster The entire panel got very involved in discussing the ramifications of the Obama poster. Starting with the fact that Fairey was sued by the AP for using an AP photo as reference material, they debated whether Fairey’s act of appropriation in this case was valid. Earls and Heller both agreed that Fairey’s position was very defensible because he clearly was not exploiting the photographer in creating that poster—that was not his primary motive; he wanted to support the campaign. Blechman, speaking from his experience as an art director, felt differently and compared the photographer whose work was represented in the poster to a commissioned photographer for a design project. Typically photographers are compensated whether in pay or credit for their work, but this AP photographer received neither. I feel like both sides had a point until an audience member pointed out that it was not the AP photographer who sued Fairey, but the AP itself, which is a very powerful corporate entity and it seemed, in this case, it was right for Fairey to sue the AP back in an attempt to defend the rights of being a dissenting voice (whereas Blechman had felt that this seemed a bit self-serving and vindictive on Fairey’s part).

Context matters The most important thing that I got out of this entire discussion is that every case of appropriation “appropriateness” needs to be judged based on its own particular circumstances and context. One must know all the facts (such as the photographer not even caring that the photo was his.) It is never as simple as it initially seems. Inviariably the discussion is always an interesting and complex one and should not be confused with questioning the designer/artist’s “integrity” or “skill.”

That “Obey Plagiarist” article I read, in retrospect, now seems like very provincial and petty finger-pointing. While I can understand why the author would be angry about Fairey’s apparent self-promotional tendencies, it is also silly to throw out the baby with the bathwater. No one is a martyr, even though we expect them to be. And, as Heller pointed out, there is a history of such self-promotional behavior in art, but  it does not mean we have to base our interpretations of the artists’ work. Dali for one was infamous for being an egotist who branded products in his name and reaped the profits, but we still acknowledge him as a canonical Surrealist with a firm and secure place in (art) history.

In the context of everything that Shepard Fairey has contributed, it is better that he did these controversial works than not. It is better than he existed and got famous than not. As Heller stated, he is “obviously playing games with us here.” And he is sometimes crossing the line, but what is to say he isn’t doing it on purpose to provoke us? If that is his goal, he is doing a great job. To reduce him to a mere graphical thief is an unjust simplification that impoverishes the viewer by obscuring what else there is to see.

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