Monday, February 16, 2009

The Shepard Fairey Debate

Since this *IS* is design blog, I think we would be remiss not to touch on the recent lawsuit brought against Shepard Fairey by the Associated Press. For those of you who aren't familiar with the case, the AP is claiming that Fairey violated copywrite law when he referenced a photograph taken by Mannie Garcia (a freelance photographer for the AP) to create his now famous Obama poster. Fairey has since filed countersuit against the AP, saying that there was no violation because he dramatically changed the appearance of the image. Garcia himself seems pleased that the image was used, and has no problem with not being credited. The fair trade argument has been debated and debated and debated ad naseum on blogs over the past month. Even Milton Glaser has chimed in! I've found that a lot of commentary on the subject amounts to either mudslinging by dissidents or hero-worship by fans, so I think the subject deserves some considerate and open-minded debate by designers. After all, this is an ethical middleground that designers and artists deal with frequently.
Last week, I visited the Fairey retrospective, Suppy and Demand, that is now showing at the ICA, and had my own mixed feelings about the show. I was impressed by much of the work—the processes and layering Fairey used elevated many of the pieces to the level of fine art. For example, the piece above references a travel poster of the geyser from Yellowstone National Park, but Fairey reappropriates it to form a social commentary on the war in Iraq. The poster now on exhibit at the ICA is highly textured and clearly labored over— it is truly impressive to see in person. Beyond that, it makes a statement that is clearly the artist's own. Here, my instincts say "fair game."

However, posters like the one above did somewhat bother me. Unlike the geyser poster, or even the Obama poster (which is similarly rich in texture), this appropriated Müller-Brockmann image is a flat, stylized version of the original. I don't feel that Fairey has added anything of particular substance to his version, and I can't help but cringe knowing that many people who walk into the gallery may not recognize that the original image is not of the artist's own creation. But maybe I am wrong— maybe this Swiss poster is so much a part of our visual culture that it has become fair game (much like Warhol's soup cans). At any rate, plagarism does not seem to apply—although Fairey does not directly cite the work for those who may be unfamiliar, he is also clearly not trying to hide his reference.

If this is the case, does it matter that it was not immediately obvious Mannie Garcia was the source for the Obama poster? And although Garcia seems okay with the fact that his work was not credited, would our opinion be different if the photographer himself was suing, rather than the AP? For me, the answer is yes. Incidentally, but perhaps pertinent to the argument, Fairey himself balked at the reappropriation of his Obey Giant image by Baxter Orr in 2008, issuing a cease and desist against the latter for a negative parody based on his image (above).

In my mind, I keep going back to the case brought against Jeff Koons not so long ago for copywrite infringement. Design Observer had a very thoughtful write-up on the lawsuit that is well worth the read. In summary, a relatively unknown photographer, Art Rogers, sued the very famous Koons for making a sculpture based on his above image of a string of puppies— and won. To me, it seems obvious that Koons made extraordinary alterations to the image, not to mention the change in media. But should Rogers still have been credited? He work may be somewhat less respected in the fine art world, but should it not still be protected? At the same time, where do we draw the line? Clearly, artistic licence and freedom of speech are also at stake.

There is almost too much to be said on the subject to fit in one blog post! Sound off in the comment section to give your point of view. ••••


Nora said...

Wow, this is a great post, Tess. I can't say I am too impressed with Fairey's "interpretation" of Müller-Brockmann's poster. I agree with you that many people who walk into the ICA might not be familiar with that piece and would actually credit Fairey with the design.

It's a really interesting case -- I actually saw Stephen Colbert discussing it with his own brother, a copyright attorney, and the former director of the Whitney the other night. Both were in agreement with Fairey but I really like the connection you are making with the Jeff Koons case -- you are so right in acknowledging that Koons lost the lawsuit even though he changed the medium!

Really interesting post, Jez.

sarahheartsdesign said...

Thanks for brining our offline conversations online- it's too big a topic and I didn't want to tackle it!!!

I encourage people to read this article on the Huffington Post with a clear definition of "fair use."

Also of note, from what I've read, is that the AP actually has no right to sue because they don't own the rights to the photograph, I read somewhere (perhaps in the above article) that the photographer never signed over the rights.

In the end, no publicity is bad publicity.

Sarah Martin said...

It all sounds a bunch of ego to me.

Whatever happened to "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," or is it really all about name recognition and money.

An AP photo...give me a break. Its not like Fairey used a cover photo from Newsweek magazine, but then what if he did.

G-Box said...

Shep did absolutely nothing wrong. They say the rule is that you must change the original image at least 30 percent. That's absurd! Who's to say what 30 percent is anyway? That's a matter of opinion, not fact. Plus, if AP doesn't even own the rights to the picture then they need to chill out.

Aside from the Obama image, this is what propaganda art is all about. Taking an original statement, image, video, etc. and flipping it on its ass to send a completely different message.

I mean, how many people rip off Shep's work every day. He created a sick style that has become recognizable throughout the world. His art should be viewed as inspiration to all of us artists/designers, not plagiarism.

One more thing. Shep was right to file that cease and desist against Baxter. He didn't change anything, he just slapped a mask over the Obey logo.