Street Art and Marxist Theory

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Street artist Shepard Fairey became widely known as the creator of an iconic poster that supported now President Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. The poster depicted an almost propagandistic image of Obama with the word “hope,” inscribed below him. Prior to this political endorsement that garnished so much attention Fairey had an already impressive repertoire of design under his belt.

Fairey, a South Carolina native, graduated from college with a degree in art and an interest in progressive culture. As part of a group of artists and skateboarders Fairey created a stenciled sticker that depicted the face of Andre the Giant, a professional French wrestler and actor, and with his friends, began to adhere the image everywhere they went. As the imagery began to gain public attention Fairey attributed the street art campaign to a study in phenomenology. A philosophy coined by Edmund Husserl, phenomenology examines the consciousness of stagnant minds when confronted by unusual specimens. Such specimens cause those minds to react, question and contemplate in ways they would not otherwise have done.

In this video Fairey sits down with punk-rock royalty, turned talk-show host Henry Rollins of Black Flag fame. Fairey shares with Rollins the point when he reinvented the art work of the Andre the Giant logo to a more close-up version including the word ‘obey’ along the bottom. He claims that this change exudes a Big Brother-like message, and when placed next to large-scale advertisements, as it commonly is, it causes people to contemplate though they may have normally accepted the ad alone as mundane.

Here he also begins to reveal the evolution of his career as an artist who rejects and questions the intent of advertising, to one who himself begins to take part in advertising. It is this evolution that brings into play the Marxist philosophies of the codependence of economic production and relations, to cultural phenomena. Initially a young man defiant of popular culture and ideologies, Fairey picked up art as a way to combat the status quo. His art somewhere along the way became notorious for countering the ever-presence of capitalism. His notoriety turned into popularity and such popularity garnished success until he himself was by and by a part of capitalism. Though, as he says in the video, he tries to do so with morals as to what he will represent with his artwork, his company OBEY is now a widely known brand that brings in a large revenue.

Fairey’s reaction to the (base) structure of society pushed him to create his own niche within the cultural society (superstructure), which in turn made him lot’s of money that through taxes, employment (the relations of production), and advertisement he supports the (base) structure of society that he initially intended to rebel against. This cycle enacted by Fairey supports the Marxist base and superstructure theory.

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