Open Letter to Shepard Fairey: Renounce Brand Obama!

2010 March 12
by Ando Arike

Dear Shepard,

Several times a week over the last winter, I’ve passed the 6-by-8 foot poster on the right—yes, one of yours—wheat-pasted on a wall near the corner of Bedford and Grand, here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Time has not been kind to it—not only have graffiti artists defaced it in ridicule, but as I’m sure you’re aware, your work’s reputation is now yoked, for better or worse, to the candidate you helped put into office, and he’s turning out to be just as awful as George W. Bush. I’m not in the habit of quoting Sarah Palin, but as she recently asked an audience, “How’s that hope-y, change-y thing workin’ out for ya?”

Consider these comments, magic-markered in the poster’s white-space: “The Big O: this prez sucks so bad!” “Out-of-touch artist!” “Head in ass politics—stick to painting skateboards!” “Shepard Fairey sucks ass!” Your poster may be an earnest effort to call attention to the climate change crisis, but its impact is totally undercut by your more famous marketing work for Brand Obama.

Why do they think you suck ass, Shepard? Well, it’s obvious now that “change,” in any meaningful sense, was never on the Obama administration’s agenda—that the intent from the get-go was an extension of the policies begun by Bush: class warfare in the “homeland” and imperialist conquest abroad. The audacity of Obama’s betrayal has left many of his supporters stuttering in disbelief. Exorbitant taxpayer bailouts for bankers and the corporate elite! Expanded attacks on working-class safety nets and public services like education! Renewed assaults on the Bill of Rights! Ratification of the Permanent State of War in the largest military budget in human history—Nobel Peace Prize be damned! And then in Congressional testimony that must’ve made Bush and Cheney green with envy, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair openly claimed authority to assassinate anyone the Administration deems a threat, American citizens included—to be cop, judge, jury, executioner, all at once, worldwide.

Yes, Shepard, you unfortunately bear some responsibility in this—you and all the other artists and professionals who were part of the Brand Obama design team. What Advertising Age celebrated as “the audacity of marketing” and the “rebranding of American” gave new justification and support to the projects of the American imperialists, from the demolition of democracy at home to the slaughter of innocents abroad. “Hope,” “Progress,” “Change”—how embarrassing it must be now to hear these words! By lending your talent and reputation to what, in hindsight, was a sophisticated variation of the Big Lie, you ultimately became another shill for Wall Street, Big Pharma, and the War Machine. As one of my disappointed undergrads said in a recent class discussion of the 2008 election, “I’ll never vote again.”

Of course, you’re probably protesting, “How could I have known? I’m an artist, not an intellectual. I thought I was doing the right thing. And, anyway, what if we had let McCain and Palin win?” It’s true that many well-meaning people jumped on the Obama bandwagon, and that many imagined they were choosing the lesser of two evils. But the sham has been exposed, and so breathtakingingly cynical was the fraud that it has taken the fight out of people.

Quite by accident, I saw your 2007 E Pluribus Venom show at Jonathan Levine’s space in DUMBO; I was enthralled by the work, a celebration of revolutionary iconography and utopian visions, set off against sinister and chilling images of totalitarian power. From the exhibit’s brochure:

Fairey’s artwork comments on underpinnings of the capitalist machine, critiquing those who support blind nationalism and war. Fairey addresses monolithic institutional authority, the role of counter culture, and independent individuals who question the cultural paradigm….Blending Art Nouveau, hippie, and revolutionary propaganda styles, he celebrates subjects advocating peace. His works blur the perceived barriers between propaganda and escapist decoration, political responsibility and humor with the intent of stimulating both viscerally and intellectually.

Was this all just sophisticated marketing? The crass appropriation of these moments of mass idealism, the reduction of visionary altruism to empty branding? I hope not, because I, for one, was taken in.

Do you want to redeem yourself, Shepard? To regain the respect of your audience? Then publicly renounce your famous “Hope” poster—burn one at a press conference! It’s time to make a dramatic break with Brand Obama, to admit your mistake. And to further illustrate your penitence and disdain for the Administration, why not , at the same press conference, settle a large donation upon a charitable NGO in Afghanistan and Pakistan?—perhaps a group like Medicins sans Frontieres working to alleviate some of the suffering that the occupation and Predator drone attacks have caused for innocent civilians. You can rid yourself of this stain! Repeat after me, “Yes, we can!”

Peace, Ando

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