Monday, February 09, 2009

Shepard Fairey, Milton Glaser, and design as art or appropriation

Via Boing Boing comes this reaction from Milton Glaser to the controversy brewing over Shepard Fairey's iconic Obama poster:

For myself—this is subjective—I find the relationship between Fairey’s work and his sources discomforting. Nothing substantial has been added. In my own case, when I did the Dylan poster, I acknowledged using Duchamp’s profile as an influence. I think unless you’re modifying it and making it your own, you’re on very tenuous ground. It’s a dangerous example for students, if they see that appropriating people’s work is the path to success. Simply reproducing the work of others robs you of your imagination and form-making abilities. You’re not developing the muscularity you need to invent your own ideas.

I'm of two minds on this one. First, I think that Fairey added significantly to the photo. His treatment of the angle and expression elevate Obama's profile to the iconic level. His use of the campaign logo and color treatment create a new work — one that is admittedly propaganda. Moreover, the design of the poster has lent itself to a thousand variations, which helps it rise to an iconic level. At the level that design-as-art must also communicate, I see his work as entirely separate from its source.

Glaser's second point about a student's reaction to this work is an interesting point. Fairey lent a perspective and an idea to his work. The fact that he was able to lift it from the source and the fact that someone can create a similar effect using Photoshop does, however, risk teaching students that they can succeed by simply creatively manipulating someone else's work.

That said, I recommend checking out the comments on the Boing Boing thread. It's an interesting discussion.