Shepard Fairey says honesty is essential to his art despite his 'slip' over a disputed Obama poster [updated]
The rock 'n' roll references were flying Wednesday evening as Shepard Fairey and Robbie Conal, leading, L.A.-based exponents of political street art -- including posters they sometimes paste up illegally -- sat side by side in a Culver City television studio talking about the inspirations and aims of what they do.
In a session that will be available on the Web as part of the "Brave New Conversations" series of chats involving cultural figures who push for social change, Fairey said punk rock changed his life while he was growing up in South Carolina and helped set him on a path toward art-as-agitation; Conal hailed the Clash as "role models" and worked Donny Hathaway's "Everything is Everything" into one of the many quips and plays on words that suggested he could have grown up to carry on in the tradition of Lenny Bruce as easily as that of Francisco Goya.
When someone in the audience brought up Fairey's ongoing legal battle with the Associated Press over his appropriation of an AP photo as a template for his landmark "Hope" poster supporting Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Conal jumped in with a long anecdote about a nervous moment he had with the AP in 1996 on account of his unauthorized use of a photograph of a black girl being taunted by whites in the background of "Little White Lies," an artwork Pearl Jam commissioned him to do when the band was putting in its two cents against the re-election of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
[Updated 11:52 a.m.: an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the photograph.]
After the program had ended, and with all those musical references already in the air, Culture Monster figured it would be appropriate to ask Fairey to respond to a line from Bob Dylan's song, "Absolutely Sweet Marie" -- "To live outside the law you must be honest."
Fairey, who last fall admitted that he'd lied initially about which AP photo the "Hope" poster was based on, gave an earnest response.
"I would agree 100%" with the Dylan line, Fairey said. "When you're bending the rules you need to be completely accountable and on the level and able to justify all your actions. That's how I've tried to operate most of the time. I had a recent slip you probably know about. That's why I'm so mad at myself. It undermines all the rule-breaking with integrity.
"I've come 100% clean, but the fact I had to -- I don't know if that's something I will ever completely recover from." Having stumbled so publicly, he added, "I had two choices: let that define me, or go on and do the best things I can do and learn from it."
Fairey said that the period last year in which he was trying to negotiate a mutually acceptable fee with AP, then sued to have his use of the photo declared a legal, unpaid "fair use" that transformed an existing work for the sake of creating a separate and original one, was "a very tough time in my life." It led, he said, to his fudging the truth by initially submitting a false court claim that the poster was based on a 2006 shot of Barack Obama and actor George Clooney together, rather than a photo taken during the same panel appearance that showed only Obama.The difference has potential relevance in determining whether the poster was legally a "fair use" of the copyrighted photo.
"The relief of feeling I'm past it is well worth the humiliation," Fairey said. "The burden of concealing something really rips you open inside."
Fairey said it's his bank account that's apt to get ripped open now, as the federal judge in New York who is presiding over his dispute with AP decides what the penalty should be for his false submission. "I'll be fined, and it might be a lot of money." He said that sales of the "Hope" poster earned about $800,000 -- all of which was either plowed back into producing Obama bumper stickers and other campaign paraphernalia, or donated to the Obama campaign and to Feeding America and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Check back later for more on the discussion between Fairey and Conal.
-- Mike Boehm
Top photo: Shepard Fairey. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. Left photo: Photo on which Fairey's Obama "Hope" poster, pictured at right, was based. Credit: Manny Garcia / Associated Press