Toothless Fairey

Let me get meta on the following quote:

Despite its rousing first impact, the exhibition leaves you with a sense of dismay at the devolution of a certain avant-garde dream into a kind of visual easy listening for the college-educated masses.

[…] Mr. Fairey has acknowledged his debt to Ms. Kruger, but he seems cheerfully oblivious to how his ideas about being subversive through art are fatally familiar, not to say naïve. They were radical half a century ago; now they are the stuff of college art history courses. Does anyone not realize that capitalism is contradictory? Is anyone’s world really rocked by something that can’t be immediately categorized? Every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound conventional thinking. That’s popular culture.

This line of criticism, against Obama iconographer and longtime illegal artist Shepard Fairey, is, as sound as it is, well…fatally familiar (right down to the ‘sense of’ dismay, unable somehow to reach actual dismay). For me to say of this criticism “I like this” is not blogging, right, but what else is to be done with such not-so-new information? Celebrate it ‘for its own sake’, is one answer, meaning celebrate it for ours — cultural criticism as ritual. To complain about Shepard Fairey is to reperform the thing complained about.

This is the distressing prospect that provokes bloggers — especially young, smart bloggers — to reach for the overthink. Surely there must be something extra-new, extra-penetrating, all-too-insightful to say about this fleet phenom, that speck of mental dust. What virtuosity, skewering a speck of dust! Analyze ye rosebuds while ye may, be not coy….

The only way out (it seems) is up. Meta-criticism offers the hope of novelty at an upshifted scope that wards off triviality. Not coincidentally, the same is true of electing Barack Obama. And here we are again at Fairey.

The New York Times reviewer from whom the above quote came has a pretty limp recommendation for pulling the artist out of the kaleidoscope:

What is missing from his work is a deeper, more personal and therefore less predictably formulaic dimension. What might that be?

It would be, predictably, casting himself as a character in the same glamorama that now jumbles up Andre the Giant, Lenin, some Arabian women, Mao, etc., etc. Like reaching for the overthink, going ‘personal’ in an effort to go ‘deeper’ throws the pop artist into the most formulaic of dimensions. Every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound the line between creator and created. That’s popular culture.

But I can’t stop here, right? Those who offer only potent criticism are at risk of allegations of Negativity and Underthinking, implying as they do that perhaps the most needful kind of critique for some subjects is silence. In such a culture as ours, that kind of pessimism is too easily mistaken for nihilism. Too irresponsible! And, still, any meaning is better than no.

So consider Brian Thomas Gallagher, who beat the Times to punching Fairey earlier this year at n + 1:

Staring into the deep blues and reds of the “Person of the Year,” one fears that in skewering Fairey, one is potentially pinning down who Obama might turn out to be: a mere bundle of associations, linked—inevitably and irretrievably—with movements he did not start, a politics he does not support, and a transformation he cannot possibly represent. In the image, past ideologies and present branding beautifully fuse in a political tableau distant from any actual politics.

Well, maybe, right? One might actually hope that this is so. Who wants a transformation that can be adequately represented? What I fear is a generation or two of conscious and unconscious beneficiaries — meaning non-beneficiaries — of ‘trickle-down politics’: something is going on at the top, something vast and administrative and expert, and what matters is that it supplies resources for an aesthetics of endlessly novel contradictions (including, only for the purposes of later contradiction, noncontradiction) — and, of course, that it maintains the conditions of peace and stability necessary to conduct this kind of aesthetic practice indefinitely. And profitably?

In Faireyland, abandoning ‘actual politics’ to a distant managerial class is an act of aesthetic pragmatism, the better to traffic in HOPE than in Obama himself. (The apotheosis Fairey never achieved: replacing the word HOPE with REAL.) Gallagher describes Fairey in cutting terms as a radical shill, but the real question is whether he’s simply a particularly inspirational kind of liberal (small and large L). As Jim Ceaser has remarked:

Pragmatism is the magic word to describe what liberals want, but do not want to argue for. It is at this point, as Burke might have said, that we enter “the fairy land of philosophy.”