Being the poster child (so to speak) for street urchins’/artists’ fight against the Man has not dampened Shepard Fairey’s sense of humor, much. At his Visions and Voices conversation with Annenberg School professor Sarah Benet-Weiser November 4, the creator of the most widely seen piece of art in recent history — the Barack Obama Hope poster — was not afraid to crack jokes at the expense of the Associated Press, his corporate combatant in an increasingly nasty legal battle that’s testing the parameters of copyright law. When a Fairey handler tried to tamp down the artist’s response to a question about the mutual AP suits, he pointed out that anyone could find the points about fair use that he was trying to make: “You can go on Google, like I did to get the image.” The crowd chuckled warmly at the jester’s mask of guilelessness.
Being the next Napster-like leader in the new media war against old media has made Fairey a bit of a rock star. Fans showed up to the overbooked Annenberg Auditorium clutching posters and conspiracy theories, like so many badges of subversion. Relaxed in an armchair with his chiseled profile, like the overgrown skater boi he is, Fairey both ate up and deflected the attention. He was funnily and charmingly self-aware. “I might be at the tail end of the hipster cycle now,” he said, after having spent about an hour discussing slides showing his evolution from the sticker mania of Andre the Giant and Obey through his anti-Bush Constructivist propaganda to the thoroughly and unapologetically un-ironic 2008 campaign posters.
Fairey did get a bit tongue-tied when he tried to explain why he lied about his original source for the Obama posters, the subject of his litigation battle with the AP. As political as his work can be, there’s always been a certain moral ambiguity in its tactics — some would say that ambiguity is another word for hypocrisy. But there still can’t seem to be little doubt that, as he argued, the Hope poster meet the criteria for fair use. Certainly, it seems very Goliath/NARAS-like for the MSM to be picking on a punk rocker from South Carolina in this way. They’re making Fairey a martyred spokesperson; his Annenberg appearance showed that given the right jury, he could easily persuade them of his righteousness. Plus, he makes some pretty damn good art. If he didn’t, no one would bother messing with him.