Photo credit: Tommi Ronnqvist for the Guardian
The American artist Shepard Fairey was beaten in Copenhagen last Saturday after finishing a commissioned mural with which some locals took issue. According to the Guardian, he was commissioned by an art gallery to commemorate the controversial demolition of a youth house that had been used as a base for the left-wing community there. The Danish media reported, in error, that the mural had been commissioned by the city council. His attackers, apparently a part of the left-wing community who had lost their HQ, therefore, thought he was a government-backed propagandist, and after arguing with him outside a nightclub, they bruised one of his ribs and gave him a black eye. Locals also wrote, “No peace,” and “Go home, Yankee hipster” on Fairey’s mural, which features an image of a dove and the word ‘Peace.’
In spite of the media misprint that Fairey was a government-backed propagandist, a Copenhagen local, according to the Guardian, said the mural was still an attempt to smooth over the conflict between the leftist-community and the government. That is, Fairey was a privately-backed propagandist and there remains a resonance of justice in the attack. In fact, the beating seems to offer a more general sense of moral fairness in calling Shepard Fairey out as fraudulent in his posture as ‘rebel street artist’ and friend to the oppressed.
The position he’s trying hold as a paid, professional street or graffiti artist comprises two socially, culturally, economically and politically opposed identities. The first of Fairey’s identities is the graffiti or street artist who performs work illegally in order to lash out at a system of government that leaves his voice out of the national conversation—in fact, the work is done in order to force the street artist’s voice into the public, political sphere. At least, this is the reason the original writers in New York and Philadelphia tagged up trains in the seventies and eighties. Fairey never actually held this role authentically, as, by the time he was defacing public property in 1989 in Rhode Island with his Andre the Giant posters, graffiti had become a trend that skater punks from middle and upper class families took on in order to be cool and rebellious, not to have a political voice (which they and their class already possessed in spades). In fact, Fairey’s wiki entry details that the Andre poster was created while Fairey was attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Before that, the young Fairey attended a boarding school for the arts. That’s right, a boarding school for the arts. His father is a doctor. His mother is a realtor. As a well-off kid who went to fancy art schools, Fairey’s street art was never a legitimate antiestablishment statement.
Shepard Fairey was always training to be his second identity, the one that perfectly opposes the powerless, poverty-stricken graffiti artist hankering for a political voice. That identity is Shepard Fairey, the successful commercial artist and fine art gallery artist, whose work, “has a place in The Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,” according to the Independent Mail out of South Carolina, whose 2009 article features just how proud his grandmother is of him. He was also recently prominently featured at a show in LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art alongside Banksy and Basquiat. In this role, Fairey even has an LA fashion line, Obey Clothing. He recognizes his success and uses it with good ol’ upper-middle class business savvy. As his class ideology dictates, Fairey capitalizes on the power that the inner-city bombers—poor, powerless minorities—of the seventies and eighties created in order make their presence known. In the role of affluent commercial and fine art gallery artist, Fairey is much truer to who he is, to his roots in the middle and upper classes, to his art school education, which legitimize him as a professional.
Yesterday, Fairey commented on his blog, that he didn’t want to press charges against his Danish assailants because he didn’t get a good look at them, nor was he “a huge fan of the cops generally anyway.” The latter statement calls attention to Fairey’s being in a kind of state of denial. It’s this doltish refusal to see the truth that makes him such an interesting oxymoron. It’s not his work that’s fascinating, but Fairey himself as a representative of the confused nature of current strains of American free-market ideology wherein controlled revolt is accepted and encouraged as a catalyst and capitalist model for economic growth. Shepard Fairey is a financial success as a capitalist, and he is an upstanding American citizen who is represented as an artist in several of our most prestigious institutions of high art; yet, still he poses as a revolutionary underdog who has been jacked by the system, who is out to save the downtrodden, with whom he claims to have so much in common. Here is the truth: the police are not now and never were after Shepard Fairey. He poses in public as one engaged in revolt against the establishment, but he is the establishment, and always was.