I recently watched the Hulu documentary OBEY GIANT, about the life and work of artist Shepard Fairey. I admit that before the documentary I didn’t know his name, but I certainly knew his work, from the Andre the Giant stickers, to the OBEY phrase, to the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster used during the 2008 presidential campaign. The film gave me an excellent overview of Fairey’s life, work, setbacks, and activism.
I’m not necessarily a visual arts person, but I can enjoy a good piece of art, especially if it says something and speaks to me. Living in Miami, especially during the late 2000s and early 2010s, there was no way to escape being exposed to art, given the prominence of Art Basel Miami Beach, and the accompanying art shows that kept popping up every year taking advantage of the massive attention from the art world on the city. In all my years living there, I never visited any of the galleries and art shows because let’s face it, they were expensive, overpacked, and pretentious as fuck, but I did enjoy seeing all the art that would pop up around the city, both legal and less-than-legal.
While there was a lot of tagging and stenciling for the sake of saying “I was here,” there were always some neat pieces with social commentary that stood out. It’d be a lie to say now, years later, that I was “woke” to those pieces at the time, that I raised my fist in solidarity with these temporary socially-conscious pieces, but I did see them, I saw what they were saying, muttered “rock on,” or “fuck yeah,” and moved on with my life. Again, I’m not an art connoisseur, but pieces that actually say something stand out and grab my attention.
There’s a lot of interesting conversations to be had based on the documentary ranging from the legality, and legal consequences, of street art, to derivative art, and fair use vs copyright, but the one that I’m interested in having is about meaningful expression through art, as I feel it is of relevance to any artists, regardless of medium.
In Fairey’s story, his art begins to display political tones in earnest during the George W Bush presidency, especially due to the actions taken by that administration as retaliation for 9/11, as seen in pieces like Bush Hell and Hug Bombs (although there certainly are political pieces in his body of work prior to the Bush administration, and the whole OBEY campaign evolved pretty quickly from mere tagging to social commentary). The Obama “HOPE” icon, arguably his most famous and recognizable piece, becomes part of an ongoing series of prints calling attention to political and social issues, as well as criticizing the Trump administration (see Demagogue) and the draconian policies that have been at the forefront of his campaign from the start (see the We The People series).
I bring up Fairey’s political pieces as an example from where to launch a conversation about using art to express meaningful messages, given the influence his one Obama piece had on the campaign, cementing a lesson he had learned earlier in his career while living in Providence that taught him the responsibility of the artist towards their message (see the third point, The power of art and politics). Fairey has said that what he’d like his art to achieve “is to encourage someone to think about an issue in a way they may not have,” whether through repetition, portraiture, or “finding evocative imagery and symbols that can translate complex ideas in relatable ways.”
This issue has been on my mind a lot recently, even before watching the documentary, as I come back to my creative endeavors at a time when I’m also revisiting my stance on social and political commentary and activism (a topic for another time). I don’t necessarily think that every work of art has to say something profound, but it does have to say something; otherwise, to me, it isn’t art. I think of the gaming projects I’ve been working on, and it would be easy to dismiss them as simply being objects of entertainment, but that would be a disservice to my work, and if true, it’d frankly be a waste of my effort. I’m not saying that a little game about playing teens in a fictionalized 80s American high school will bring about social change, but buried in there are some ideas about identity, belonging, (in)conformity, and the American dream, ideas that I’ve been mulling and thinking about for years and felt I needed to get out. At the same time, art that hits you over the head with its message crosses the line into propaganda, which is an ugly word to have tacked onto your work, with a terrible track record even when used with the best of intentions.
I know artists who feel that art should exist independently of political/social commentary, that art is about personal expression and connection with people. I understand the reluctance to turn art into a vehicle of expression for ideas larger than the one person, but deliberately refusing to do so sends just as strong a message. Art IS a message, period, and the role of the artist is to decide what the message being sent out will be. It’s a huge responsibility, which is why this conversation is important, why I will continue to actively and critically think about it, and why I invite you, whether as artist or audience, to engage with it as well.