Thursday, July 09, 2009

Shepard Fairey: A Powerful Dissident

In “The Declaration of Independence,” Jefferson wrote about citizens’ duty to dissent—in speech but also in action: “…Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” Write about a time on this trip you have noticed dissent as a powerful force in American life.
This prompt has been weighing on me for a while now. I feel that mere complaints are too often mistaken for dissent, and I wanted to find an example of what I think is intelligent dissent—not just the regurgitation of a vague, generalized, partisan opinion which requires little to no understanding of the issue at hand. I'm interested in specific, creative, alternative ideas as a response to what the dissenter views as flawed.

I found an example of the powerful dissent I was looking for in a location and medium I least expected. When I think of dissent I think of speeches, books, and articles. I think of two opponents in a verbal duel. I do not think of framed pieces in the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. When I hear 'dissent' I do not think of murals on brick buildings in poor neighborhoods, bumper stickers, or reinventing propaganda. But then Shepard Fairey came along and my perspective on dissent was quickly challenged.

Even though the picture I would paint of America would differ from his, I appreciate the beauty and straightforward style in which Fairey communicates through his art. It is obvious that a lot of thought goes into his work; each word and each square inch of his pieces are intentionally symbolic.

In this re-creation of the One Dollar Bill, Fairey implies that the American people are pawns, forced to participate in an unethical capitalistic system, and subject to a government who's ultimate goal is to take over the world by way of a 'new world order.' By making this a 'ransom note,' Fairey challenges viewers to consider who/what really owns them.

I see elements of truth here: I think there are quite a few Americans who walk around uninformed and ignorant to the political, economical, and social systems that they subscribe to. But they're not victims. They will only fall prey to 'lesser gods' if they allow themselves to.

In the left circle you see a hand (adorned with dollar sign) reaching for the world. Around it is enscribed 'Hostile Takeover. New World Order.' Earlier this week, during the G8 Summit, Obama supported giving the U.N. more power. Perhaps Fairey is on to something; I wouldn't discount the possibility of the U.N. ruling the world some day. And the scary part is that some people think it's a great idea.

Across the bottom we see written, 'Indiscriminate Capitalism.' A group of us were sitting in the back of the bus when I started to work on this article, and I put this phrase up for discussion: What does Fairey mean by 'Indiscrimate Capitalism'? The consensus was that it's supposed to convey the absence of ethics in capitalism -- that the capitalistic system pays no regard to its effect on the environment, other people, etc.

"But wait a second," I'm thinking, "capitalism was never meant to be an ethical authority." That's what religion is for. I'm all for ethics, but if capitalism involved the dictation of ethics then it would cease to be capitalism -- it would become something like socialism or communism, where everything is "fair" (i.e. everyone gets the same thing no matter how much or how little they work.)

There's something beautiful about reaping the rewards of work in conjunction with productivity. And I'm all for sharing the wealth, but I want to share my wealth on my own terms and using my own discretion.

Mr. Fairey has the right to be frustrated if the people/businesses around him are not living up to his moral expectations, and I understand that his work reflects that frustration. But I wonder about how most viewers interpret this phrase. I see a common trend: Americans blame the government for some businesses' low ethical standards and feel that the way to fix it is for the government to enforce some kind of rule about how and where businesses acquire their products, manufacture their products, market their products, and distribute their products. When really, it's not the government's job to supervise any of that -- each company must set their own ethical standards and moral aspirations; and in turn, each customer must set their own. I hope viewers realize that "Indiscriminate Capitalism" doesn't reflect any failure on the part of our government; it should make them reflect on our decisions as individuals--as individual consumers and individual merchants.

I like that Fairey goes for shock value and is clear but not exhaustive in his message. He leaves a lot up for interpretation, forcing the viewer to think through what they see.

To read more about Shepard Fairey, click here.


  1. Shirah, this is so well put. Esp the part about how it's not government's job to get involved in regulating morality.

    In response to this statement --
    "Mr. Fairey has the right to be frustrated if the people/businesses around him are not living up to his moral expectations, and I understand that his work reflects that frustration."

    --BUT, Mr. Fairey should understand that he does not have a stronghold on morality, therefore others might hold different expectations. Furthermore, if socialism is in his sights, it doesn't allow for varyiance of opinion, and not everyone believes the same. I think this is the problem with the lefties & the righties in this country. Both sides coercively want to cram their agenda down the throats of ALL people and turn every debate into a moral one in order to claim authority and righteousness. It's just silly.

    Also, capitalism, like money, is not a moral or immoral concept in my opinion. The system is neutral, but we can use it for 'good' or for 'bad.'

    Anyway, good blog. Me likey;).

  2. *variance* whoops!

  3. I think that Fairey does understand that neither he nor anyone else has a stronghold on morality -- it would be hard to assume that from just the context of my article, but after having watched a documentary about his work and its purpose, I feel comfortable asserting that he is a pretty unassuming guy.

    He says, "I still consider myself more of an artist than an activist...The purpose of my work is to get people to think about how their actions affect the situation."

    So in regards to the morality issue, I feel like his aim is not to dictate what's moral and what's not; rather, he wants the American public to stop allowing others to "make the rules" and dictate it for them. He wants people to think about what their moral standards are and aspire to live up to those instead of the low bar that others around them set.

    Then again, maybe I'm just reading a lot into this!

    Thanks for your willingness and readiness to discuss/debate...I know I can always count on your straightforward opinion!

  4. We shall debate this when you return! ;) haha.

  5. You just made a big difference to my analysis of this dollar bill by Shepard Fairey. Thank you!


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