Shepard Fairey and the democracy of images


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I stopped by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art today to see the survey of L.A. graphic designer Shepard Fairey. I’ll have more to say about the exhibition later, but for the moment I was struck by the sight of a tour group gathered in front of the now-famous campaign image of Barack Obama as a heroic portrait-bust on a pedestal composed from the word ‘hope.’

For decades it has been common to see similar groups across town at the Museum of Fine Arts on the Fenway, looking at such Revolutionary-era subjects as John Singleton Copley’s famous 18th century portraits of John Quincy Adams, Paul Revere and others. There, modestly but exquisitely portrayed as working citizens far different in demeanor from the aristocrats paraded in British Grand Manner portraiture, they are surrounded by period trappings in the museum’s great Colonial American art collection. (The MFA will open more than 50 galleries in a new American art wing in 2010.) At the ICA, Obama is exalted by a passionate street artist in white-cube galleries inside a sleek new steel-and-glass building on the city’s historic, gentrifying waterfront. It fits, just the way the MFA’s portraits do.


As soon as I snapped the photo above, a guard rushed over to admonish me that photography is not allowed in the show. ‘I’m not using a flash,’ I replied. ‘Is that OK?’ Nope, came the reply. ‘Must I obey?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ she answered, missing or -- more likely -- ignoring my too-cute-by-half reference to Fairey’s trademark street-and-clothing campaign about authoritarian imagery, dubbed ‘Obey Giant.’

The guard was perfectly cordial and just doing her job. But I couldn’t help note the irony. A ‘no photographs’ policy is in force in a show about an artist who is currently trading lawsuits over his guerrilla (meaning unauthorized) use of part of an Associated Press photographer’s published picture of Obama. I’m supportive of artists’ full participation in the ‘democracy of images’ that seems to characterize our digital environment. I wonder what John Singleton Copley and John Quincy Adams would think?

-- Christopher Knight