barack-is-hopeAre we in the midst of a Shepard Fairey backlash? Not exactly, but there is some sort of reassessment going on. The L.A.-based political poster artist designed an iconographic image that reverberated nationally, along with other forms of viral street art that have been piquing the interest of city dwellers for years–but the question that’s being debated at the moment is whether Fairey’s output makes for good art, or even good design. This comes in the wake of Fairey’s 20 year survey exhibition at the ICA Boston, along with news that he has won the Brit Insurance Design of the Year award (chosen by a panel that included MOMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli).

Reviews of “Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand,” at the ICA have been middling to negative. In his review of the show this week, for example, the L.A. Times‘ Christopher Knight delivered a clear-eyed and even-handed assessment of Fairey’s oeuvre:

“The 39-year-old designer … possesses a limited pictorial vocabulary, while the grandest curatorial claims made for the nearly 250 examples in the galleries are unsupportable. But the 20-year success of “Obey Giant” can’t be denied, nor can the efficacy of its strategies in establishing “Obama Hope” in the public consciousness. If neither adds up to major art or effective counterculture politics, both are plainly worth considering.” (Read the full article here).

In a post last Tuesday on the blog New Curator, A.D. Jacobson was more critical of the institutional cynicism motivating Fairey’s survey than he was of Fairey himself:

“this entire show seemed like a set up to me, not even getting into the fact that the BPD arrested the guy on the way to the show. (Yeah, what better way to boost the rebellious cred than getting arrested. Brilliant!!) The images were of the highest production value, but even he will tell you, this ain’t art.  Not when you’re doing avatar stencils for Joey Ramone and saying things like ‘I’m not a musician, but I’m still gonna rock it hard as nails.'”

It’s not only Shepard Fairey-as-artist who’s being dissed, it’s Shepard Fairey the designer. In an article for the London Times ot Poster of the Year. Or Ad Campaign of the Year. And the prize’s self-defined role is to reward the most “innovative and forward thinking” design. This poster is neither innovative or forward thinking, certainly not compared with last-year’s winner, the bargain-basement laptop in reach of the world’s poor, designed by Yves Béhar” (read the full article here).

What I find most interesting is how all the Fairey take-downs seem to mirror Obama’s own “coming down to earth” transition in national press coverage of late, and I’m not just talking about Fox News. Even so-called liberal media outlets like MSNBC have their pundits training a colder, harder eye on the President, as his budget proposals, his stated commitment to health care and his nods to arts funding come under fire, often from both sides of the political spectrum. It seems that buoyant moment when a single iconic image and the word Hope could move a nation is over. In the worlds of art and politics alike, now it’s time for deeper scrutiny, (hopefully) more intelligent debate, reassessment and repositioning.

Cue Soul II Soul: “back to life… back to reality.”


Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for Artforum.com and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.