For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Shepard Fairey is not some sort of god that shepherds pray to while out in the fields. He is a street artist — although only in a very loose sense, since he is about as ‘street’ as Drake and equally talentless.
Fairey is mainly notable for two things. One, he created the trashy Obey clothing brand, which can be found at any Urban Outfitters and has become quite popular among skateboard brats ages twelve to fifteen. Two, he designed the iconic red, white and blue Barack Obama “HOPE” image that became ubiquitous during the President’s 2008 campaign. For the poster, I give the artist due credit. The image became a clever branding tool that I believe was a valuable component in his defeat of Senator McCain. There’s no putting a price on powerful imagery.
Yet in the past week, all of this credit has vanished more quickly than it came. Fairey has returned to my bad side and I believe he will be there to stay.
About a week ago, Fairey released a newly coined alteration to his esteemed Obama image in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The new version is similar to the original, except Fairey replaced Obama’s face with a Guy Fawkes mask, an imitation of the legendary Catholic rebel whose plot to bring down the English monarchy led to his torture in the Tower of London. The movie V For Vendetta popularized this visage in 2006. The Fawkes mask has become a symbol for the OWS movement, despite the fact that Time Warner, a very large corporation, currently licenses it.
Fairey’s original OWS poster contained the “HOPE” banner across the bottom with small text above and below it that together reads “Mr. President we HOPE you’re on our side.” An anonymous OWS representative, however, would not allow the new slogan. He sent Fairey a letter repudiating the poster, claiming that the movement is “wholly non-partisan” and that the Obama administration is just as involved with Wall Street as the Republicans. Fairey submitted, claiming that the poster was not “in any way a re-elect Obama poster.” He then further threw his former idol under the bus by claiming that he was as disappointed as anyone with Obama, and changed his original design to say instead “We are the HOPE.”
Fairey should have never rescinded his original design. By addressing the slightly altered poster to the very person it used to venerate, Fairey was doing exactly what Occupy Wall Street should have been doing all along: harnessing their energy and enthusiasm for a common goal. His new image could have helped unite a disparate and often contradictory set of forces to enact actual political reform.
Right now, Occupy Wall Street is a cacophony. There are valid complaints about an unfair tax code that favors wealthy corporations over struggling individuals, drastic income inequality that is approaching absurd levels and gridlock in Washington that favors no one, but there are also a variety of regressive, anti-capitalist, anti-financial sector, anti-globalization complaints that conflict with any genuine understanding of economics.
Having multiple competing voices within a movement is fine, as long as they mobilize around a common set of goals. The OWS movement, however, has chosen to remain strictly apolitical. They continue to occupy and chant, without ever formally supporting a candidate or a defined policy solution. Instead they claim to represent the interests of the 99% without offering any sorts of solutions to the very gridlock they oppose. Vague hyperbole is great for rallying support and constitutes a type of imagery in and of itself, but it contributes nothing in the way of policy changes and will only further the polarization of our political system. Such speech will only be useful when applied to an actual goal, say an electoral campaign.
People often compare Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, but they are really quite different. The Tea Party, disagree with it as I may, is a tenacious political force. Unified around a co-opted memory from the American Revolution, the Tea Party has put their rhetoric to use by supporting numerous candidates and advocating for specific policy. Anyone following the debt ceiling debates over the summer surely knows what a viable force the Tea Party has become in Congress.
Fairey’s image could have been the sort of unifying directive force that OWS needs. Right now, the movement is struggling under the all-encompassing weight of its philosophy. A strictly apolitical movement cannot enact what seems to be clearly political change.
My advice to OWS is this: Take advantage of the electoral democracy in which we live and pick something or someone specific to support. Elizabeth Warren could be a great start — she is running a fairly high profile Senate campaign in Massachusetts right now and she speaks eloquently on the issues that OWS seems to value. Also, don’t assume every politician reaching out to you is trying to exploit the movement as their own symbol. This may be the case for some, but there may be a few who actually wish to incorporate some of its previously unheard voices into our government.