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Designing Obama

March 10, 2009

Obama Poster


Obama Poster


I attended AIGA Chicago’s “Designing Obama” event last night sponsored by Sappi Papers and Unisource. Sol Sender and Scott Thomas, creators of the Obama logo and website, described their experiences in developing a political “brand” of historical impact. 

Early this week NPR spoke to Shepard Fairey who is in a lawsuit with the Associated Press concerning his Obama poster. The gist of the lawsuit is that Fairey “copied” /drew from / used as inspiration a photo that is owned by the AP. Ok, I get it. He then GAVE the piece to the Obama campaign to support and raise money for the Obama administration. Ok, great guy, I get it. So, why sue?

Artist’s draw from photographs ALL THE TIME. What is art if it is not a manipulation of the world around us?  Yes, Fairey didn’t take the picture, Mannie Garcia did. But, what if Fairey took a picture of the picture, does that make it his own? Silly, I know, but think about it. No one else could have made Obama look and feel the way that Fairey did.

Print Magazine conducted an interview with Milton Glazer and here is what he had to say:

“The process of looking back at the past is very accepted in our business—the difference is when you take something without adding anything to the conversation. We celebrate influence in the arts, we think it’s important and essential.  But imitation we have some ambivalence about, especially because it involves property rights. It probably has something to do with the nature of capitalism. We know that in other cultures, Chinese culture for instance, imitation is seen as a tribute, because you wouldn’t bother imitating trivial works. But in those cases the influence is acknowledged and the skill required is obvious.

For myself—this is subjective—I find the relationship between Fairey’s work and his sources discomforting. Nothing substantial has been added. In my own case, when I did the Dylan poster, I acknowledged using Duchamp’s profile as an influence.  I think unless you’re modifying it and making it your own, you’re on very tenuous ground.  It’s a dangerous example for students, if they see that appropriating people’s work is the path to success. Simply reproducing the work of others robs you of your imagination and form-making abilities. You’re not developing the muscularity you need to invent your own ideas.”

I believe that Fairey is a young artist that the old media doesn’t know how to deal with. Suing is the legal way to do it, to stop his in his tracks. In the interview with Fresh Air he commented that the lawsuit has affected his artwork. I am sure it has stopped many artists, graphic designers and even fashion designers for that matter. At what point is the world around you, your inspiration deemed yours? No one else could have made Obama look and feel the way that Fairey did. Not even the local Chicago TV station, The U. 

“The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.” 

Shepard Fairey, 1990

That is 1990 PEOPLE! 19 years ago! 

Fairey is an amazing groundbreaking and wheat pasting artist, who started the most prolific graffiti movements ever, and has moved into the public eye (however reluctantly) to support a great cause: elect Obama. Can’t we just leave it at that and let artists get back to what they do? Even if it is causing trouble?

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