This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Click to watch the TMZ video of Shepard Fairey's public meltdown.
The release of a video by TMZ has revealed a side of street artist Shepard Fairey that he most likely does not want you to see. Fairey's wife-- who is notoriously silent in regard to her husband's activity as an artist-- spoke freely to an interviewer-- or paparazzi depending on your opinion of the incident-- which sent Shepard into a public meltdown. Those asking the question watched in disbelief as Fairey lectured his wife for responding. His tantrum did not last long, but it was long enough for many within the larger art community to question the validity of what he has said about his recent artwork-- a validity that has long been questioned by street artists outside of the mainstream art gallery scene.
Shepard Fairey has insisted that he continues to do the majority of his street work on his own even though he clearly is enjoying the life of a celebrity. In fact, Fairey often talks about the risk of creating art on the streets during interviews and documentaries about his street art. When asked if he still goes out to do street work himself his wife quickly answered, "Long time ago."-- which resulted in Shepard staring at her in what seemed to be an angry manner. With the camera still on Shepard informed his wife to not "answer stuff" and then said "Jesus..." as he turned away from his wife in disgust. It was as if he could see his OBEY Clothing label become the next bargain bin find. He then lashed out at her further in what some have described as a sign of spousal abuse-- mainly because of the domineering-- if not intimidating-- reaction that he had to his wife answering a simple question in public.
Others have been quick to note that the question was asked of Shepard Fairey-- not his wife. Even with that in mind one would think that Fairey would have handled the situation better. A spousal dispute while a camera is on is not exactly a smart move to make for someone of Fairey's status-- not to mention that he could have simply corrected the error if in fact an error existed in the response that his wife made. He was obviously concerned that his credibility as a street artist had been damaged with her response-- but instead of doing damage control he walked away with his credibility as a decent guy flawed as well.
I'm not going to suggest that what Shepard Fairey said to his wife is a tell-tale sign of habitual abuse within his relationship-- that said, I do think that specific moment was both mentally and verbally abusive. I really don't see how anyone could argue otherwise. He appears to have said, "What what are you... don't answer stuff... please... Jesus... What is your (some have claimed to hear the F-bomb at this point) problem I'm not stupid!" -- which implies that he thinks his wife is "stupid". He said that knowing the camera was on. He had to have known that millions would see it-- but he did not care. That is reckless in my opinion. I just hope for Mrs. Fairey that this captured moment is not a sign of a pattern. I do think it may be important for some individuals to explore considering some of the issues Mr. Fairey has championed-- specifically, the 'fight' against all forms of domestic abuse.
The irony-- and controversy-- of Shepard Fairey's choice to 'explode' on camera comes full circle when you realize that he has done work for charities that fight against all forms of domestic abuse in the recent past. This is a man who should know that it is not acceptable to degrade any woman in public or private-- especially his own wife in a very public location. After all, he has worked closely with individuals such as Jill Sorensen and Cheryl Davis Masri of Knock Out Abuse. Suggesting "his wife should have known better" or was "out of line" as some social media comments have offered does not really hold ground-- especially when you consider organizations, such as Knock Out Abuse, that Fairey has championed in the past.
Logo that Shepard Fairey designed for Knock Out Abuse
Many who have viewed the clip are alarmed by the obediance Shepard Fairey's wife displayed in the sense that she 'locked' up even though she had just been publicly insulted by her husband over what many would consider a rather trivial issue. There are two ways to take that according to some who have commented on the clip. 1.) she is accustomed to such behavior and knows that it is best to not argue with her husband. or 2.) she was thrown back in that she is not accustomed to her husband speaking to her in that manner. Regardless, it goes without saying that people have found Shepard Fairey's tantrum at the expense of his wife alarming. People on Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites have made their opinion known. In fact, I've found few examples of people defending Fairey's actions compared to the number who are appalled by what they observed on the TMZ clip.
Back to the art -- It has long been known that Shepard Fairey utilizes the assistance of a street crew for larger projects and for promotional work for upcoming art exhibits and corporate interests. However, the artist has claimed that he still works solo on occasion. There are some relatively recent arrests that back his claim. However, one could point out that those specific arrests may be little more than PR stunts since they took place around the time of major exhibit openings. If in fact Shepard Fairey no longer 'bombs' on his own one must ask why he has kept it a secret from fans. After all, die hard fans of his artwork will not care either way. Could it be that Shepard Fairey is concerned about his public image overall? If so, this incident did not really help his cause.
Few will deny the 'street cred' that Shepard Fairey established for himself in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, there are those within the street art community who have long questioned his credibility as a street artist simply because of his background. After all, Fairey's father is a doctor and his mother a realtor-- he experienced an upbringing that is rarely experienced by artists who take to the street with their art. He has long lived a life of relative financial stability and comfort-- it is thought that any economic hardships he endured were largely due to his own choice rather than a world he was born into. Thus, many street artists feel that Shepard Fairey is nothing more than a 'rich boy' playing a role-- that he has exploited the common hardships of an underground art movement for his own corporate interest and for fame. Questions of this nature happen to be questions that Fairey does not like to be asked.
I realize that Shepard Fairey has created some of the most recognized images of the last decade-- big media tells us this often. However, he has also been known to 'borrow' directly from obscure works of art created by other artists-- predominately minority artists such as revolutionary artist Rene Mederos-- in a manner that is not always considered legal under current United States and International copyright law. This has apparently spurred a number of out of court settlements and other forms of unwanted exposure for Fairey. Not to mention an onslaught of questions pertaining to the ethical boundaries of his practice and the contradictions therein.
The controversies that Shepard Fairey has faced over the use of what many describe as 'minority images' has led individuals, such as the street artist known as the Phantom Street Artist, to claim that Fairey "rapes culture" and "exploits minority struggles" for profit-- his profit-- and that no amount of charity work makes up for the "systematic abuse" of those struggles. The frustration-- and dare I say, anger-- within some communities has been obvious for years-- and at this rate I don't think it is something that Team Obey, if you will, can write off as "jealousy" as so often happens. Question everything.
The fact that so many are upset over these issues would suggest that a further evaluation of Shepard Fairey's artwork and the impact it has had on culture overall should be considered-- or should I say, reconsidered? There is a side to Shepard Fairey's art that museum retrospectives have failed to address thoroughly-- which tends to happen when questions for artists at Q&A sessions are known in advance... which I believe was the case at the ICA Boston. Question everything.
When viewing Shepard Fairey's artwork it is hard not to think that the next big 'gotcha' story will arise over his images once some artist or collector comes out of the woodwork to say, "Hey! I recognize that! And HE did not do it!". Adherence to copyright would not necessarily matter if it were not for the fact that Fairey's Obey Giant is a corporate entity-- branding and selling merchandise... with a legal team that has been known to send out cease-and-desist letters to artists, such as Baxter Orr, who appropriate Fairey's images for their own artwork. Fairey has been known to describe artists like Orr as "parasites" and "mimics" all while defending his own broad practice of appropriation-- of which he has claimed that he is fighting for the rights of all artists. Apparently that is not the case for specific artists who have utilized his images. Question everything.
As a critic I must say that Shepard Fairey is certainly good at one thing-- that being the ability to cultivate a branding image by attaching himself to influential bands and popular politicians. After all, much of Fairey's mainstream acceptance occurred after attaching himself to President Obama's historic campaign-- and a "grass roots" art effort that one could argue was established by the campaign itself instead of being purely grass roots in the traditional sense of the term. There is evidence that the media rise of Fairey’s HOPE poster was orchestrated by key members of Obama's campaign-- mainly publicist Yosi Sergant. Question everything.
People knew of Shepard Fairey prior to his work with the Obama campaign-- but his career skyrocketed during and afterwards (as did Sergant's until he was caught up in a NEA scandal). One could argue that Fairey was not a household name prior to his Obama campaign involvement. It leaves one to ask-- would the number of museums and influential galleries that have exhibited Fairey's artwork since the campaign done so had Obama lost his run for office? Was his rise a 'pat on the back' for obeying his then political idol-- Barack Obama? That is likely a question that Fairey will never answer. Question everything.
In closing, the artist who routinely states that individuals should "question everything" obviously did not like it when his wife answered a question. He clearly did not like the question that was asked-- and has a long history of avoiding similiar questions that would shed light on his claims. As I've said before in my criticism of Shepard Fairey-- people will continue to question the artist who says to "question everything". After this incident the answers may be very difficult for Fairey to come up with. I'll leave the home life questions to the gossip bloggers. The main question I have from the art-side is-- "Is Shepard Fairey still a legitimate Street Artist-- was he ever a legitimate street artist?"- furthermore, is there such thing as a "legitimate street artist?". You tell me -- and don't forget to question everything.
Take care, Stay true,
An article by Mat Gleason that may be of interest to anyone who wants more details about this story.