I first became aware of this legal issue because some in the photography community were understandably up in arms over the whole idea of an “artist” basing an illustration on a photograph, but without properly crediting the photographer (that would be Mannie Garcia, a freelancer for the Associated Press).
Saturday, March 31, 2012
What is art? (Baby, don’t hurt me)
Recent coincidence: right around the same week that street artist Shepard Fairey was featured as a guest star on an episode of The Simpsons (“Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart”), he also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge relating to his inappropriate use (or outright theft, as some might call it) of a photograph that was the basis of his widely-seen “Obama Hope” poster.
This image is likely familiar to most people from its connection to and use during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Though I didn’t know his name then, I was previously familiar with Fairey’s obnoxious “Obey”stencil, which was parodied as the Homer “Dope” stencil from that same Simpsons episode.
Also of note is the Simpsons episode itself, which I thought was one of the funnier ones in recent memory (though the Internet yet again spills bile from its contrarian spleen). The couch gag mystified me at first, because it was a parody of the opening credits sequence of the show, Game of Thrones, which I had never seen. Of course I knew it was a parody of something (over the course of 500-plus episodes, what hasn’t been parodied by The Simpsons?), and I find it amusing that here’s a show that regularly exercises its fair use rights presumably fairly, while guest star Fairey actively covered up his use of the template for his most influential work. Ironically, on the episode, Fairey plays a character on the right side of the law, busting street artist Bart Simpson, whom the establishment considers a mere “Vandal Van Gogh.” That leads to my favorite exchange from the episode:
Chief Wiggum: I don’t traffic in wordplay, Kent, but I do have a message for Mister Prank Lloyd Wright –
Lou: Uh, that’s architecture, not painting, Chief.
Chief Wiggum: They’re all artists, Lou, why don’t you open your eyes?
Indeed, I’d like to believe that different kinds of art are all equal, though I wonder what this case says about the relative value of art. Should we consider the “Obama Hope” poster a sort of collaboration between photographer Garcia and street artist/stenciler Fairey? Without the former, the latter likely would not have created the iconic work. On the other hand, one wonders if Garcia even considers himself an artist – he is after all a press photographer, at least in this instance. And it’s certainly fair to say that his photo of Obama, and the photos taken by the photographers on his left and right at the same event, their camera shutters firing within mere milliseconds of his own, would never have been seen by anyone as anything other than journalistic documents, hardly worth a glance, whereas Fairey took that and created something that affected people in a larger way. And yet, the photo did deeply affect at least one person – Fairey; otherwise he wouldn’t have been so inspired.
And finally, are we to judge the value of art by how many people are affected by it, and how deeply? Or do we acknowledge instead that the value of art is not determined by whether it inspires us, but by whether it inspires a meme? Parodies within parodies!