Sequestering the Visible
The Associated Press, in calling out graphic designer Shepard Fairey for appropriating an AP image in his famous Obama posters, puts itself in a strange position, since agencies like the AP thrive precisely on appropriation, whether in syndicating reports, or, as their extensive image bank shows, appropriating what is photographable—ergo, what can be seen.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” says writer Susan Sontag. “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” Should people like Obama sue photographers like Mannie Garcia and agencies like the AP for appropriating his likeness? (Can Obama even lay claim to his likeness in the first place?) In turn, should artists like Fairey raise a howl when photographers and news agencies publish photographs of their artwork in various media? Should artists be obliged to secure permission whenever they use a found image as reference? The Fairey v. AP case raises a multitude of questions on art, photography, design, reproducibility—and inevitably, politics and power.
“AP believes it is crucial to protect photographers, who are creators and artists. Their work should not be misappropriated by others.” The prefix mis- belies the subjectivity of the claim. It is strange, after all, that a photography bureau wants credit and compensation for a non-photographic poster. It is even stranger that an agency allegedly seeking protection for its artists is turning a blind eye to a practice which has long shaped art. From apprentices who copied their masters’ works, to artists who incorporate others’ works into their own collages, the practice of appropriation goes a long way, involving countless artists in the history of art-making.
“In principle,” says theorist Walter Benjamin, “a work of art has always been reproducible.” This began to be especially prominent as technology progressed in the late 20th century. Marcel Duchamp pioneered the notion of the “found object” as art. Andy Warhol’s works celebrate the newfound reproducibility and mass sensibilities of the visual. Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man works and Sherrie Levine’s photographs of photographs push the boundaries of copyright. “It would be strange for me to think I’m being ripped off,” says Prince when asked about artists appropriating his work, “because that’s what I do!”
Fairey’s Obama poster in particular, and overall aesthetics in general, is largely based on appropriation, much like the other artists abovementioned. His elements borrow largely from the Soviet Constructivist and Cuban poster tradition. His vector images are contemporary counterparts of the silkscreen aesthetic largely associated with countercultural movements which freely distributed images to raise consciousness and solidarity, and did not particularly care for intellectual property rights as a means for profit. Fairey’s actual participation in such movements, however, remains questionable. According to artist Mark Vallen, in a well-researched piece tracing Fairey’s visual etymologies, “his work is the very embodiment of ‘radical chic,’ bereft of historical memory and offering only feeble gestures, babbling incoherencies, and obscurantism as a challenge to the deplorable state of the world. ”
The Obama poster issue brings to mind the case of another iconic image: Alberto Korda’s portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Hailed as the most reproduced image in the history of photography, the Korda portrait has been the subject of numerous portrait posters like Fairey’s, albeit even more radical in their intent. Initially popularized by socialist/communist movements, Korda’s Che photo has now become so ubiquitous that it is impossible to keep track of. “The history of this image, from the moment it was taken to that of its current global dissemination, is a complex mesh of conflicting narratives,” says Trisha Ziff, curator of an exhibit tracing the visual legacy of the Korda portrait.
Korda, unlike the AP, is not as anal about the reproduction of his image. “As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world,” says Korda in an article. He draws the line, however, when it is used to promote products and purposes which are not in keeping with his lofty convictions, like when he sued a vodka company for using the Che image in an ad campaign.
The difference between Korda and the AP is clearly political. Korda, in his agency as a photographer, contributes to the communitarian vision he believed in. (An anti-establishment vision, it must be emphasized, which is prone to capitalist appropriation—a transgression Fairey himself is guilty of.) The AP, meanwhile, as a capitalist (non-profit?) agency, is “protecting AP’s intellectual property,” a move which appears fascistic in its ambition.
Fascism, explains Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” In the same way, the AP gave Fairey a chance—after all, the non-profit poster was all over the place during the Obama campaign—and now wants to assert their “property” after the fact.
Regardless of its legal technicalities, the AP case is a crude attempt to take private possession of something that clearly belongs in the public sphere. The fact is that Obama is a public figure, and his likeness is open for anyone to interpret. The fact is that AP supplies images to the mass media, which shapes consciousness and culture, and inevitably, cultural production. The fact is that photography is an art of mass reproduction, in the same way that Fairey’s poster is also a mass medium, made precisely to support a mass campaign.
Only in a capitalist context can one imagine the sequestering of the public—in this case, the realm of the visual—as private property. #