Art vs. Illustration: Shepard Fairey, Art and Technology

There’s a Shepard Fairey discussion starting on the Facebook page of Arts on the Block, a community arts organization for teens in Montgomery County, Maryland.

AOB leads off the discussion:

The author of a New York Times article on Shepard Fairey – the artist whose portrait of Barack Obama (now on view at the Portrait Gallery here in DC) became the iconic symbol of the campaign- claims that Mr. Fairey is less like art and more like “a canny illustration of what everyone already knows.” What do YOU think?

I responded:

I think that when the author puts what Fairey does in those terms, he’s defining art based on the technologies and practices he’s accustomed to thinking about, rather than allowing the visual image to speak for itself.

That is, he calls Fairey’s work “illustration” because it begins with photographic images and ends with software, rather than beginning with beginning with an image in “the mind’s eye” and ending with “hardware,” the painter’s array of brushes and paints and canvases and so on.

These kinds of claims fail to understand where the human artistic touch enters into the equation. Fairey still has to understand color and composition, for example. And he has to understand his complex software as well as any painter understands his or her hardware. Just as importantly, he has to understand the cultural context of his images better than most artists do.

It’s worth noting that people made the same kinds of claims about photography, yelling that it’s not an art because the human hand need not intervene (much). This debate went on for many decades, until Ansel Adams drove the last nail into that coffin. I hope Fairey does the same for these digital techniques.

I would add here just some further fuel to the fire, from “a critique by artist Mark Vallen” who charges Fairey, mainly, with plagiarism):

What initially disturbed me about the art of Shepard Fairey is that it displays none of the line, modeling and other idiosyncrasies that reveal an artist’s unique personal style. His imagery appears as though it’s xeroxed or run through some computer graphics program; that is to say, it is machine art that any second-rate art student could produce.

Comment at the AOB page (click “Discussions”) or here.

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