Seldom has the art world been so united behind a politician as it was during the campaign of Barack Obama, but the emergence of an artwork as an iconic image of the candidate was an added bonus. In a matter of months, Shepard Fairey’s polarized screenprint of Obama, projecting what the artist has described as a mix of “vision, confidence, and wisdom,” went viral—from agitprop street art to official inauguration poster. From Facebook, where thousands of users adapted its high-contrast style to their own portraits, to the National Portrait Gallery, which proudly touted it as a new acquisition, “Obama Hope” quickly zoomed from low culture to high. The artist himself became a talk-show darling, a symbol of the return of the creative class to Washington and its rapprochement with the precincts of power from which it had been alienated for so long.
The honeymoon did not last. In February 2009, on the eve of a party launching Fairey’s triumphant retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, police arrested him for previous graffiti-related offenses. The event seemed timed for maximum publicity, and, indeed, it soon launched a debate over why a vandal with a long record of defacing public property was being treated as a celebrity. But that controversy was soon overshadowed when the Associated Press announced that after a long search it had found the original photograph—shot by Mannie Garcia, one of its freelancers—on which Fairey had based his famous image. Lawyers from AP demanded credit and financial compensation. Fairey immediately responded with a lawsuit claiming he owed AP nothing because he had completely transformed the photograph’s style, meaning, and purpose. Art became part of the national conversation in a different and unexpected way, as the press, the public, and the courts tangled over arcane aspects of copyright law, as well as the modernist strategy of appropriation, in an effort to determine whether Fairey’s “referencing,” as he called it, was legal—or fair. Later the artist admitted that he had switched photos to conceal from AP which image he had actually used. (The official image Fairey made for the Obama campaign, which was acquired by the Portrait Gallery, featured a different, legally cleared photograph.)
Last January, AP, Fairey, and several of Fairey’s business entities announced a pending settlement, agreeing to disagree on legal terms while collaborating financially on merchandise bearing Fairey’s “Hope” image as well as other images from AP photos. (AP’s case against Obey Clothing, the company that marketed apparel with “Hope,” continued.) The next week, another fair-use case, Jeff Koons’s cease-and-desist letter to Park Life, a San Francisco business selling balloon-dog bookends, made its way into the news cycle. But the national conversation, it seemed, had moved on, focusing less on intellectual property and more on intellectual propriety. The National Portrait Gallery was enmeshed in a more ominous controversy, over the censorship of a David Wojnarowicz video, set in motion by Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough. And the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, preparing for a major street-art show (in which Fairey plays a large role) that opens April 17, became the focus of yet another controversy after it was revealed that director Jeffrey Deitch had asked the Italian artist Blu to paint a wall of its Geffen Contemporary building—and then ordered the wall to be whitewashed as soon as it was finished. Deitch later explained that the mural, which depicted coffins draped with dollar bills, was removed because of the urban context of the museum, located near the Veterans Affairs Building and a monument honoring Japanese American soldiers. Given that the museum is a “guest” in the community, Deitch said, the mural was “inappropriate.”
Protestors at Clough’s Town Hall meeting in Los Angeles in January—his first public discussion of the Wojnarowicz video in nearly two months—conflated the two events by carrying coffins covered in dollar bills. Clough said he recognized that he had acted hastily, and announced he was setting up a network of advisers (including political analyst David Gergen) to help handle similar problems in the future. However, he still defended his decision to remove the video, noting the Smithsonian’s vulnerable position at impending congressional budget hearings. Some museum directors began to question whether accepting any federal funding at all was a good idea. Meanwhile, a group called the Republican Study Committee announced a plan to deplete the budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. It was clear that the cultural world had become alienated from the political world once again.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.