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Shepard Fairey

September 13th, 2009 by Embedded I · 7 Comments · Uncategorized

Many people, at least among those over 35, have noticed that the Obama: ”Progress”, ‘Hope’ & ‘Change’ posters, by ‘street artist’ Shepard Fairey, strongly resemble the artwork of communist revolutionary propaganda. Democrat-types dismiss the observation, saying there is no connection, that the Obama art is just more of Fairey’s usual work.

Are they that superficial, or are they just lying? The resemblance is no accident of graphic options, or of RGB-‘Posterizing’ in Photoshop. It derives directly from the artistic and philosophical leanings Fairey has adopted.

Shepard Fairey put his street-art sensibility to work for his candidate of choice, in hopes of "appealing to a younger, apathetic audience."

From Wikipedia (i.e. to be taken with-a-grain-of-salt):
Shepard Fairey (née 1970) began as a skate-boarding street artist, with a bent to rebel against, or at least expose, the Big Powers around us that we blindly accept, take for granted, and obey.  (The name of his website is “ObeyGiant ”.)  He began his career approach by posting this graffiti image of André the Giant, with or without the “Obey” epigram, everywhere he could:

obey-giant.jpg image by banoi

(André was 7’4”, 540 lbs; some may recall his hilarious role in The Princess Bride)

Artistic Leanings

In The Washington Post, William Booth describes Fairey’s mindset for developing  the Obama Hope poster  (“Obama’s On-The-Wall Endorsement”, 2009/o5/18):

… he wanted to make posters that the cool cats would want. The 2008 Democratic primary season equivalent of the Che poster (with all that implies). More Mao, more right now. The kind of poster that might make its way onto dorm room walls of fanboys. The kind of poster that might sell on eBay, as a signed Fairey Obama recently did, for $5,900. He wanted his posters to go viral.  (my emphasis)

Note the implicit wish for the ‘good old [beatnik & hippie] days’ when socialism was “cool”.  (Just throw in some Democrat Blue:) image

Booth, rightly, ties Fairey’s works to the Russian Constructivists of 1919:

Fairey’s artwork follows the style of his predecessors. His Obama posters (and lots of his commercial and fine art work) are reworkings of the techniques of revolutionary propagandists — the bright colors, bold lettering, geometric simplicity, heroic poses — the "art with a purpose" created by constructivists in the early Soviet Union, like Alexander Rodchenko and the Stenberg brothers,

Exactly —Fairey’a art is nearly identical in style to the artwork of early communists, whether in Russia, China, S.W. Asia or Central & South America.   Why?

Philosophic Leanings

Fairey graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration.  He  links his work to Heidegger’s views of Phenomenology (originated by Hegel,  and expanded by Husserl) .

Phenomenology was believed to be a pursuit of objectivity, but it is really a variation of Kantianism masked by different language.  For example, in Kant’s language, categories of consciousness limit how we experience the phenomena of our senses.  In Phenomenological language, our experience of an object is “constituted” in consciousness in different ways, through perceptionmemory, retention (of a raw percept), protention (expectation of a new perception), and signification (symbolic or semiotic values).  “Knowledge of essences would only be possible by "bracketing" all assumptions about the existence of an external world and the inessential (subjective) aspects of how the object is concretely given to us.” This latter is just an echo of Kant’s division of all Existence  into noumena and phenomena … the former we can only assume (take on Faith), and the latter has only a Platonic resemblance to Reality.

The Phenomenology Wiki sums it up:

“Husserl’s method … entails the suspension of judgment while relying on the intuitive grasp of knowledge, free of presuppositions and intellectualizing.”

To Shepard Fairey’s slim credit, if I read him correctly, he prefers Heidegger’s view of Phenomenology.  Heidegger held a vaguely more Primacy of Existence view.   He argued that a person’s Existence (Being) and Consciousness were inseparable, as “Dasein” —that is, there is an undeniable Existence of which our individual Consciousness is a part.  Unfortunately, that view does nothing to close the Kantian gulf between consciousness and its ability to acquire a valid conceptual grasp of Existence, and is no less linguistically convoluted.   Phenomenology, with or without Heidegger’s help, was inescapably doomed to Primacy of Consciousness subjectivism.

No wonder, therefore, the subtitle for an article Fairey has posted on his site reads:

”Shepard Fairey On Graffiti, Breaking the Law, and the Meaningless of Meaning.” (my emphasis)

Heidegger, somewhat logically, had significant intellectual and practical ties with the Nazis, whom he publicly endorsed.  He was, a full blown collectivist —hardly the kind of ideology Americans need!

Popular art always follows cultural mindsets, it does not lead them.  So it is that Fairey’s art follows.  There are good reasons why Constructivist ‘art’ appeals to collectivist ‘revolutionaries’ and propagandists. 

The communist/leftist ideology views individual men as rather insignificant creatures with little capacity ‘to make their own mark’ in the World. It is a phenomenal world that is only comprehensible through collective understanding.  The only ‘real’ asset common to men is their capacity for labour.  They must group together to take on the greater, largely inexplicable, forces they believe confront them.  They must altruistically place their hopes in, and sacrifice themselves to, the moral glory of the greater whole, of the Collective, and at the same time hope that the Collective will save them.

(Of course they will also seek to have —or to align themselves with those who have— the power to use Collectivism to rule the rest.  What else is there?  c.f. ObeyGiant)

With the above cultural mindset, art reduces the insignificant individual man to stylized symbols.   All that matters is his position in the Collective.  Thus Socialist propaganda ‘art’ presents men, even leaders,  in unrealistic ‘high contrast’ lines, in powerful forward looking poses that presuppose Collective success. Characters & objects are variously surrounded by celestial (holy?) rays or halos. Often, sharp distortions of scale suggest a majesty of ability &/or character (e.g., a personality cult).  The images make extensive use of stark, politically meaningful colors, and usually incorporate a related, inspiring epigram or motto.

Fairey’s work, and the Obama campaigners’ eager acceptance of it, is no accident.

Below is a 21 image overview of propaganda ‘art’.  They demonstrate how the Constructivist art characteristics recur in otherwise wildly different cultures: Oriental, Slavic, Western Spanish etc. as socialist collectivism acquires political power.  The images also show that not all propaganda is Constructivist*.

  • Perhaps frighteningly, three images are less than a decade old, and two of those are by Shepard Fairey.
  • Three offer us some amusement, as knockoffs.
  • The last five were made in America, but only four are American…

To me, those last four images project respect & admiration for a man —for his life, for his ability, & for his individual sovereignty!  That is what Collectivists cannot grasp, or are afraid to face, about themselves (and is something power-lusters must never encourage).  That is what Americans fought and died for in WW2, and must now peacefully fight for within their own nation!

(*Yes, some American war propaganda probably was Constructivist art.  I am not suggesting American culture was immune it. )


Do you recognize each image? For a brief description, hold down the left mouse-button while dragging the pointer across the white space above each image.  Images are hyperlinked to their source.

A return to trueMaoism?:
The Sandinistas:
Ho Chi Min regards Lenin:
Marx knockoff?:
Shining Path:
Presidente Gonzalo (Shining Path founder)
Less crude Constructivism Just as crude
Der Seig!
Fairey (Staliesque Muslim?): Imposter: image

Stalin (1939):
Kim Il  Jong:
Charles Darwin:
image image
Recruiting Poster


For those who are interested, RightIsBest also has (quite independently) compiled a much larger listing showing poster and image parallels between Obama and other socialist leaders.

7 Comments so far ↓

  • Mike

    Anyone who can’t see the resemblance of Fairey’s style to classic Soviet propaganda is either willingly ignorant, aesthetically blind, or exercising a staggering degree of cognitive dissonance. It would be like denying that there is any similarity of style between Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. They’re distinct, but they are both clearly classic progressive rock.

    I have wondered lately (basically since it became prevalent in 2004 or so) at the left’s usage of clearly communist/socialist-styled propaganda imagery as illustrated in your post. I mean, don’t they know that this makes every extreme stereotype of their leanings appear to be true? I believe the applicable trope is “So, yeah.”

  • Embedded I

    Hi Mike,
    “a staggering degree of cognitive dissonance”
    Absolutely! I suggest even that is a “staggering “understatement!

    Large numbers of Obama supporters are practicing Peikoff’s worst form of DIS-integration (according to his DIM hypothesis). These people are D2, and not just of the nihilist variety.

    Politically active Democrats, especially those who have studied Political History, KNOW the death toll (100+ million) associated with such Constructivist imagery. These Democrats actively rationalize a ‘blank-out’, so as to be “D2 killers”.

    Even children, who remember such animated movies as “Antz”* and “The Lion King”, have an idea of the kind of language power-lusters use. Obama would hardly have campaign advisers who are more naive about political ideas and history than grade school children! It is very scary.

    *See the relevant parts of the Antz video: allow it to load & start playing; Pause it, as it continues to load; when it is loaded past half-way, drag the Play button to 4:30, and press Play. You will hear General Mandible’s 30 sec speech. Yep that is all kids need to see perfidy at play:

    “The realization of a dream, of a proud colony… a colony reborn [would that be ‘change’] … a new day will dawn … ”

    At ~6:00 min, all the lesser ants gather in the magnificent new central cavern with its branching tunnels able to accommodate a larger, better, stronger colony. General Mandible gives the order, and army ants drop huge boulders across all entrances, trapping everyone there.

    Worker ants are unwittingly picking their way through the final earth barrier to a large puddle of water. The water will flood the new cavern.
    ‘Z’, probably Woody Allen’s most sensible role, rushes to stop them.

    “Stop!”, he shouts
    “On who’s authority?” demands the work foreman.
    “On your own authority!”
    The foreman’s responds rather as you may expect.

    What, ant colonies are not collectivist!
    Who knew? 😉

  • Grant

    Shepard Fairey, in 1990, wrote of his “Obey” sticker campaign:

    The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.

    In other words: getting it right – establishing a culture dominated by productive, purposeful individuals making productive, purposeful statements – is conditional. We need always be reminded of the idle, the shiftless – the fact that no matter what we might to do bring order to our lives, it could go away. We couldutter nonsense. Chronic anxiety, apparently, is liberating.

    The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

    The (alleged) sense-sharpening and introspective value of the sticker notwithstanding, “stimulate curiosity” and “bring people to question… their relationship with their surroundings” are euphamisms for “accept the fact that we live in a unpredictable, malevolent universe where no matter what you do, spontaneous acts of utter senselessness – no matter how small – could be around the next corner.” Posting this sticker is an act of psychological projection; of attempting to shift the burden of one’s own neurotic tendendencies onto others. To place the blame for one’s own senselessness and lack of self-control onto the nature of the universe at large.

    Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker’s persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

    Ayn Rand once described (I wish I could remember in which essay) the perverse sense of comaraderie criminals feel towards one another. A sort of “us against them” attitude – even if the particular individuals invovled have nothing to do with one another. As for the “paranoia” “conservatives” feel when they see Fairey’s sticker: given the fact that this guy has gone from being a mere “examiner of phenomenology” to one of the most, if not the most, effective visual propaganda artists in the country – helping to elevate a radically unAmerican politician into the highest office in the land – it seems those who were annoyed by his “Obey” stickers were onto something.

    Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.

    No doubt our society is dominated by members who embrace collectivism – belonging to something “greater than themselves” – as a moral ideal. Even those whose circumstances make it impractical to move beyond their own selfish concerns will go out of their way to find small, senseless ways of christening themselves as “moral.” Being attracted to this sticker is a good example. However, what Fairey fails to realize – as all power-lusting collectivists, desperate to white-wash their consciences fail to realize – is that most who embrace the sticker do so not because of idealism, but out of fear of the consequences of not doing so. The idea that to possess an individual identity is important is still accepted widely enough that to people without a true sense of self, “going against the grain” in a safe, superficial way is a way to swimming with the current. To “do your own thing” – despite reason, or meaning, or even a pretense at purposeful vision – is the new individualism. This, of course, is why the counter-culture is refered to as such and why, ironically, it breeds exactly the type of apathy towards one’s surroundings, and the kind of passive conformity to fundamental ideas, the rise of the likes of Obama require.

    There’s a reason why, of all of the pictures Fairey could have chosen for his “experiment”, he chosen an Orwellian face with a totalitarian phrase underneath. It achieves exactly the opposite effect it’s creator purports it to. It achieves what had been staring everyone in the face all along.

  • Embedded I


    Thank-you for presenting those excerpts and your explanations!

    Fairey’s statements are a study in squirming Leftist malevolence, as you clearly reveal. His art serves Obama’s purpose perfectly.

    Obama sent Fairey a thank-you letter, saying,

    Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in an art gallery or on a stop sign… I am privileged to be a part of your artwork…”

    The “profound effect” is that Fairey’s art calls attention to the Sense of Life you described:

    [To] “accept the fact that we live in a unpredictable, malevolent universe where no matter what you do, spontaneous acts of utter senselessness – no matter how small – could be around the next corner.”

    As art, Fairey’s work appeals directly to emotion, bypassing thought. It appeals to a susceptible viewer’s deepest sense of dread and fear. That is perhaps the most important part of the contrast between the four truly American propaganda posters I presented, and the rest.

    Where the latter four images project the American sense of joy in life, intelligence & independence, Fairey’s art appeals to Dread, to Labor, and to Dependence on a leader. It guides susceptible Americans to believe they need to support a leader who will give them, respectively, Hope, Change and security in numbers (Progress) —with all the power such leadership presumes. Obama is eager to comply.

  • Grant

    Embedded I,

    Thank you for your even further elaboration. You discussed in your latest comment what really drew my interest in your post to begin with: the connection between the individual’s (philosophically-induced) sense of his own metaphysical impotence, his malevolent universe premise, and the cult of personality that always arises out of the politics of a society dominated by such individuals.

    It’s strange, I think, that people who hold such ideas seek to personify all of their disparate thoughts and emotions into one person. Even stranger than seeking to give credit for good things to some symbolic figurehead. It’s as if they know how bad all of it is, but if they’re going to have to live with it, at least make it so that they can have a symbol of it to look to.

    It would make sense if this tendency aros because such people consider one man more predictable, and easier to keep track of, than some vast cultural phenomenon. That they can absolve their own guilt by blaming it all on him instead of realizing that they, too, constitute the culture. However, that would imply that they wanted to overcome it eventually (or at least mitigate it). This is different.

    It makes me think of the types of religions that were dominant in the times when mankind was in an even more primitive state than during the reign of Christianity. The Christian god, at least, was generally considered benevolent. Whatever evil that occured in men’s lives were their own doing. The primitive, pagan gods, however – some of them were explicitly believed to be sadistic; taking pleasure in inflicting suffering upon mankind. That didn’t stop people from worshipping them though.

    It seems as though that not only are average people beginning to deify our leaders, but that they are expecting – willing, even – to suffer as well.

    To quote John Galt: “Do you think they are taking you back to the Dark Ages? They are taking you back to darker ages than any your history has known. Their goal is not the era of pre-science, but the era of pre-language.”

  • Embedded I

    Years ago, when just discovering Objectivism, I visited Jamaica for two weeks. One thing I will never forget is the bumper stickers and signs in windows that said, “Let go, and let God!

    The young, secular, Leftist’s version of that saying is, “Why should I get a job? I didn’t even ask to be born.

    Recall that the metaphysics of socialism is mysticism, where the collective replaces God, and the senses cannot know Reality. From Rand:

    “Communists, like all materialists, are neo-mystics: it does not matter whether one rejects the mind in favor of revelations or in favor of conditioned reflexes. The basic premise and the results are the same.” (“The Destroyers of the Modern World”, Philosophy: Who Needs It“, p70.)

    “There is only one state that fulfills the mystic’s longing for infinity, non-causality, non-identity: death. No matter what unintelligible causes he ascribes to his incommunicable feelings, whoever rejects reality rejects existence —and the feelings that move him from then on are hatred for all the values of man’s life, and lust for all the evils that destroy it” (Galt’s Speech, my emphasis)

    Of course, there are all sorts of mixed-premise Democrats that are still hoping to live. They hope a great leader will guide them through the wilderness of life.

    The nihilists and killers take a vandal’s sneering, glee in watching Obama take control, put those filthy capitalists in their place, and perhaps even destroy the US Constitution. They would rather see America die than live their own lives.

  • Mike N

    A very insightful and informative post and comments. So good I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

    ” They would rather see America die than live their own lives.” Basically, that’s it in a nutshell. Living their own lives requires a commitment to reason and reality. It is much easier to create and then slay, a demon.