I’ve been following the Shepard Fairey case through the last few months. I find this case interesting because the issues that are being litigated touch on so many current cultural/theoretical problems facing artists in the Postmodern art world. The first is the technique of appropriation, which is always POMO’s first salvo against Modernism. However, this critique has been supplanted by a further cultural one connected to use – free use of culture as a found object. This has been going on in visual art for hundreds of years. Titian and Giorgione, Tintoretto and Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, every Mannerist known to art history, the Pre-Raphaelites, well you get the idea. Strong artists steal from other strong artists. It boils down to a kind of ongoing dialog with the past, precedent and innovation – art about art.
There are a deeper issues today since our tools of appropriation allow us to replicate images exactly, and now, the idea is that we must try to determine when an image has been transformed just enough to make it into something not duplicated. But unlike the old masters struggling with precedent our cut and paste studio technologies aren’t designed to transform the past, they customize it. Replication exists before transformation and use is “originality.” Artists no longer feel that they have to make up their own images, they simply retread the found imagery that has been ingested through all of our electronic outlets. For artists this has created a conceptual endgame aimed at re-contextualizing this found culture – making “context” far more important than the replication – ground over subject. Originality is now determined by how one manages the ground rather than how one uses the subject. There is a further element to this endgame practice in that most all of our “culture” is now copyrighted. With everything institutionalized in this way we no longer have to overcome precedent – the “agon” described by Harold Bloom is not the anxiety that drives the next generation of artists. Today cultural production’s anxiety is about business and the proliferation of that business throughout the media – who owns it, who uses it and who gets paid for it. Originality, transformation are not the point – customization and accessibility are. As culture of all type, high, middle and low, has merged with business, style and theoretical change has all but disappeared. We are content with upgrades, reformulations and revivals of existing software – we have come to believe that this is the only kind of change that matters.
The Fairey case brings up many these same philosophical issues for artists – economic, political, cultural, theoretical, moral and ethical. How do we use these images – what does it mean to use these images – how do we change them – if we create our own images can they be used by others in this same way – where does money begin to play into the equation – does this change the aspect of the use of these images? Do images still carry power – how do they service power? The questions are endless.
Unfortunately for Shepard, he has become the poster-boy for many of these issues. His Obama poster was an iconic image during the last campaign, and it helped to define a new political reality for the United States. (This too may be part of his legal problems, there are many who did not want power to shift hands.) Fairey has always acknowledged the fact that he used copyrighted images, that isn’t necessarily a problem under the concept of fair use. In this instance his work’s use of the copyrighted image had changed the original enough for this new work to be considered “original” in the legal sense. I’m sure he would have had no problems in court – it was a fairly straight-forward fair use case. But that’s not how this whole affair has played out. We found, as the case has gone on, that evidence had been destroyed, and that he had purposely mislead the court about which photo was used to make this now-famous image. In the blink of eye so many other factors about how and why artists appropriate imagery have come into play. There is now a criminal case pending even as the civil case continues. None of this bodes well for Fairey or for the artists that will have to appear in courts to defend their use of copyrighted culture. Surprisingly for Postmodernists everywhere, it turns out that making Art may very well have moral, ethical and philosophical considerations after all.
Artists can’t simply slough off questions about what we do and how we do it any longer. To continue to hide behind the Postmodern monolith does not bode well for the future of “appropriation.” Which brings us to the questions we might begin to ask ourselves in our own studios. Should we create our own styles, our own images or do we continue to use what we know, what we understand? What should we question, what should we accept, what should we create? Do we customize or innovate? Again these questions are endless. They are the shifting realities we create in our studios, and that may begin to count for something in our quest for innovation and style change. Paraphrasing Dave Hickey from his speech at SVA in the fall – if you follow the rules your art disappears, it becomes just another thing on the wall. As we continue to look into reality, it is that thing on the wall that will become our focus, not the ground that supports it. We will turn away from context and look closely at how we might change the reality of the thing in itself.