Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘activism’

11 JUNE, 2014

Shepard Fairey on Capitalism, Freedom, Selling Out, and What Makes Great Art

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“I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards.”

In 1989, street artist, graphic designer, and activist Shepard Fairey created his famous Obey Giant sticker campaign, which spread like wildfire to amass a massive following and take on the characteristics of a singular semi-secret subculture. Nearly twenty years later, Fairey’s art reached a critical mass of mainstream awareness when he created the now-iconic Obama “Hope” poster as a tool of grassroots activism, rebelling against a previous administration that betrayed Fairey’s ideas and ideals in just about every imaginable way. At the heart of Fairey’s ethos is a profound commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which lends his work a new level of resonance today, as debates about net neutrality expose how toxic the intersection of corporate interest and government is for democracy and civic freedom.

Included in the altogether magnificent 2009 monograph OBEY: Supply & Demand (public library), celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fairey’s iconic Obey Giant campaign, is an interview with the artist by the prolific design historian, writer and critic Steven Heller. In it, Fairey discusses capitalism, the deeper ideological unity beneath the seeming dualities of his work, and the question of what it means to “sell out.”

HELLER: How do you reconcile your business, which counts some big corporations as clients, with your wild snipping? Is this the Robin Hood effect?

FAIREY: Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin Hood effect… I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters, stencils, etc. This strategy was however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. I will explain, but I must also emphasize that I believe in capitalism with some checks to chill out the evil greedy element. Capitalism is a way for hard work to yield rewards. When I first started Obey Giant I owned a screen-printing shop and used that equipment to produce my own work as well as doing work for paying customers. Printing is a difficult business and I got frustrated with it. I work as a graphic designer these days which came about because the work I was putting on the street created enough of a buzz that companies began to feel it would resonate enough to be used for marketing. I had created a demand for my style of work that meant that if it was not supplied to the corporations by me, then it would be supplied by other hungry designers. I decided that in doing graphic design I could keep my design skills honed and make enough money to pump even more Obey Giant materials out in public, which I consider truly subversive. This method of financing my campaign also keeps me from having the content of Obey dictated by fine art market forces. Plus, I have been able to convince some of the corporations to invest in the cultures that try to exploit, helping to create a more symbiotic relationship between the creators and harvesters of culture. It’s not an easy game but I’m making the best of life without a trust fund.

Peace Elephant (2008)

Reflecting further on this question of “life without a trust fund” — the complexities of poetry and privilege in the arts, and the often limiting cultural mythology around those — Fairey turns to the question of what “selling out” really means. Coincidentally, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson had given a remarkable commencement address on the subject in 1990, a few months after Fairey created Obey — a character he considers “the counterculture Big Brother.” Fairey tells Heller:

To me selling out is doing things purely for the money without concern for the consequences to integrity. Let’s face it though, money is freedom. For some it is freedom to buy cocaine and cars… for me, my design earnings give me freedom to produce my propaganda work and travel to other cities to put it up. It is also gives me freedom to keep an art gallery that is never profitable open. People often accuse anyone who does not fulfill their image of fine artist as suffering martyr of being a sell-out. After 10 arrests and having been physically assaulted by the cops and deprived of my insulin on several occasions (I’m diabetic), I can tell you that it is very possible to make money and be a suffering martyr!

[…]

I spend the money and take the risks I do because I want to and I don’t feel that anyone owes me anything. I do feel sorry for myself when I’m sitting in jail but overall I feel it is all very worth it. I feel it is worth it because of the positive feedback I have received from people. Many people feel powerless and my goal is to show that one person can have an effect on things even with limited resources.

Tyrant Boot (2008)

The Robin-Hooding of Fairey’s art isn’t directed just at corporations but also at the government, finding in street art and public space the ultimate arena for free speech and anti-censorship activism. He tells Heller:

I became active as a street artist because I felt public space was the only option for free speech and expression without bureaucracy… I also found the whole idea that you could be arrested for stickering or postering as something I wanted to rebel against. In my opinion the taxpayers are the bosses of the government. I’m a taxpayer — why can’t I use public space for my imagery when corporations can use it for theirs? I was baffled by the idea that companies could stick thousands of images in front of people as long as they were paid ads, but that I could not put my work in the street without being told that it is an eyesore or creates a glut. For the most part, I think the merchants and the city governments don’t want the public to realize there can be other images coexisting with advertising. This is the exact example I’m trying to provide.

Complement OBEY: Supply & Demand, which features a wealth of Fairey’s most iconic and influential work, as well as more interviews and critical essays by Rob Walker, Henry Rollins and others, with this fantastic short film about Fairey’s art by Brett Novak, commissioned by South Carolina’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art:

The best art … makes the world feel a little bit less terrifying, it makes things feel a little more intertwined…

This idea that a picture can be the thing that hits the viewer in the gut, that makes their head follow their heart, is such an important concept in my work that, no matter what I’m doing, I like the idea that someone can’t resist the visual allure of an image and, even if it doesn’t align with their political predispositions … the image itself will be beckoning at them to mull it over.

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28 MAY, 2014

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams on How Our Choices Shape the World, Animated

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“Every single thing you do is politics, because the interaction of human beings is politics writ large.”

“It is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it,” young Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his exquisite letter of advice to a friend. In fact, life — the world — only ever changes when we actively refuse to accept its givens and choose to build new alternatives. But what separates those who unblinkingly accept the world as it is, with all its injustices and imperfections, from those who tirelessly labor to make it better, in the most actionable, least pageant-like sense of the aspiration? That’s what human rights activist Jody Williams, recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and author of the infinitely inspiring My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize (public library), explores in this wonderful animated short from the RSA:

What has fueled my passion for change really is righteous indignation at injustice. Anybody can be an agent of change…

People think that if they can’t tackle all of the world’s problems and make it all better overnight, there’s no purpose. I totally disbelieve that. I believe that every action really does contribute to change, and the power that each and every one of us has to decide whether we want to be participants in creating the world we live in or we choose — and this is also a choice that we pretend isn’t — we choose to do nothing.

People say, “Oh, I’m not interested in politics.” Every single thing you do is politics, because the interaction of human beings is politics writ large.

I believe that we have to feel empowered to make that choice. And if we choose to feel passionate about something and do nothing, it is a choice — you’ve chosen to do nothing. And, believe me, there are other people who will step into that gap, take your power, and use to accomplish what they want.

In the preface to My Name Is Jody Williams, one of the greatest human rights activists of our time, Eve Ensler, writes:

What is an activist? My sense — and I think it is most clear in this stirring memoir — is that an activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.

I have often wondered at what moment one becomes an activist. Are we born with the activist gene, and then some event or incident catalyzes it into being? Is it a deaf brother, abused and cruelly treated? Is it witnessing unkindness to those we love or being raped or beaten and undone ourselves and surviving through the love of others and then feeling compelled to give back the same?

Many of us are accidental activists. We didn’t necessarily or consciously choose to devote our lives to ending war or violence against women or racism or poverty or sexual oppression, or to fighting for the environment, but our survival became so clearly wrapped in the struggle, we had no choice.

The big question, of course, is why do some shut down and move away in the face of power and oppression and others move into action? I think if we could resolve this riddle, we would unlock millions of sleeping activists who could possibly help save this world and transform suffering. Some of the secrets are found in this book.

Also from the RSA, see Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

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19 MAY, 2014

Eve Ensler on How Trauma Makes Us Leave Our Bodies and Disconnect from Ourselves

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“Many of us have left our bodies — we’re not embodied creatures, we’re not living inside our own muscles and cells and sinews.”

At a recent event from the excellent Books at Noon series at The New York Public Library, I had the pleasure of seeing Eve Ensler — activist, playwright, author of the paradigm-shifting 1998 cultural classic The Vagina Monologues, and founder of the magnificent V-Day movement — discuss her harrowing, humbling, and ultimately hope-giving memoir, In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection (public library).

In this particularly poignant segment, Ensler who has spent decades working with women survivors of some of the most brutal sexual violence on the planet, cracks open our most painful mind-body schism and spiritual rupture:

I think — from my own life experience, and certainly what I’ve discovered in many women and men across the planet — is [that] when we’re traumatized, when we’re beaten, when we’re raped, we leave our bodies. We disconnect from ourselves. And if it’s true that one out of every three women on the planet have been raped or beaten, which is a U.N. statistic, that’s a billion women.

Many, many of us have left our bodies — we’re not embodied creatures, we’re not living inside our own muscles and cells and sinews. And so we’re not in our power, we’re not in our energy.

[…]

It’s been a long journey to get fully back into my body. And, certainly, what I’ve seen everywhere in the world is that the more traumatized people are, the less connected they are to their own source of strength, their own source of inspiration, intuition, heart — everything.

Listen to the full interview on iTunes and do subscribe to the fantastic Books at Noon podcast.

Without a sliver of exaggeration, In the Body of the World is a soul-stretching, life-changing read.

Ensler is also the founder of City of Joy, an infinitely heartening community for women survivors of gender violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, offering group counseling, sexual and economic empowerment, self-defense, and creative expression through storytelling, dance, and theater.

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