Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

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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09 MAY, 2014

May 9, 1933: Helen Keller’s Scorching Letter to the Nazis about Book-Burning, Censorship, and the Inextinguishable Freedom of Ideas

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“You can burn my books… but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”

In 1933, as the Nazis began taking over Germany, their parasitic despotism spared no effort in co-opting the country’s people, ideas, and culture. Among the many oppressive tactics was a command to destroy all books deemed to reflect an “un-German spirit.” Nazi leaders enlisted mobs of students in ripping such books from bookstores and libraries, then setting them ablaze in the streets. Within days, a book-burning epidemic spread like urban wildfire across Germany.

Among the blacklisted authors was Helen Keller. Upon hearing the news, Keller, ordinarily a legendary optimist and champion of the human spirit, promptly issued a searing letter to the student body of Germany. Found in Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture (public library) — that fascinating effort to quantify cultural change through the dual lens of history and digital data by analyzing 30,000 books — Keller’s message is at once scathingly outraged and full of inextinguishable humanity.

May 9, 1933

To the student body of Germany:

History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.

You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds. I gave all the royalties of my books for all time to the German soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the German people.

I acknowledge the grievous complications that have led to your intolerance; all the more do I deplore the injustice and unwisdom of passing on to unborn generations the stigma of your deeds.

Do not imagine that your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His judgment upon you. Better were it for you to have a mill-stone hung around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised of all men.

Helen Keller

Complement with famous authors on censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s particularly poignant thoughts on the subject, then revisit Helen Keller on optimism and let yourself be moved to tears by her first experience of dance.

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25 APRIL, 2014

George Orwell’s Animal Farm Illustrated by Ralph Steadman

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“I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.”

In 1995, more than twenty years after his irreverent illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the beloved British cartoonist Ralph Steadman put his singular twist on a very different kind of literary beast, one of the most controversial books ever published. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American publication of George Orwell’s masterpiece, which by that point had sold millions of copies around the world in more than seventy languages, Steadman illustrated a special edition titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (public library), featuring 100 of his unmistakable full-color and halftone illustrations.

Accompanying Steadman’s illustrations is Orwell’s proposed but unpublished preface to the original edition, titled “The Freedom of the Press” — a critique of how the media’s fear of public opinion ends up drowning out the central responsibility of journalism. Though aimed at European publishers’ self-censorship regarding Animal Farm at the time, Orwell’s words ring with astounding prescience and timeliness in our present era of people-pleasing “content” that passes for journalism:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman

Alas, this exquisite edition is no longer in print, but I was able to track down a surviving copy and offer a taste of Steadman’s genius for our shared delight.

Also included is Orwell’s preface to the 1947 Ukrainian edition, equally timely today for obvious geopolitical reasons. In it, he writes:

I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.

And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet régime.

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was…

I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.

Orwell concludes with a note on his often misconstrued intent with the book’s ultimate message:

I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasize two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasize it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.

Steadman’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is spectacular in its entirety, should you be so fortunate to snag a used copy. Complement it with his illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland and his inkblot dog drawings, then be sure to take a closer look at Orwell’s “The Freedom of the Press.”

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