So what does the Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant fame, who received worldwide recognition for his iconic "Hope" poster of Senator Obama during the 2008 primary - now one of the most famous and parodied images of the early 21st century, - have to do with Roman art? Nothing really, except that my own work on Roman imperial art and coinage may explain why this contemporary artist and his artwork resonate with me. I explain below.
|Shepard Fairey, Hope, 2008, preceded by Progress, 2008.|
|Shepard Fairey, Pay Up or Shut Up, 2015.|
|Shepard Fairey, Farewell to Freedom, 2014.|
|Shepard Fairey, These Parties Disgust Me, 2010.|
What appeals to me about Fairey's work is the conscious propagandist quality of his work. With text and image, and often in the style of an advertisement or Socialist Realist political posters, he directly takes on an issue to make a point, often challenging policies espoused, or even ignored, by the news media. One might see his work as propaganda to counter propaganda. Indeed, "Worldwide Propaganda Delivery" is an Obey Giant slogan. The Obey sticker campaign sought to make one aware of his environment and the things he sees (and perhaps hears); the Obey logo, visible on his works, imbues his art with a sense of the looming authoritarian and, in so doing, reminds the viewer to question and critically evaluate everything.
Now for the connection with Roman art, which attracts to me to Fairey's work, as I study the communicative aspects of Roman imperial art and especially the coinage. Roman imperial art has often been described as "propaganda," although few historians of Roman art would use that description today as carelessly as we have in the past. Propaganda has strong 20th-century connotations. Immediately one may recall the imagery and messages disseminated by the authoritarian governments of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany via highly organized and well-structured propaganda ministries. The goal of propaganda is to persuade the people of the government's position or course of action and to garner their support. Roman art was not propaganda in this sense. First of all, the Roman state was nowhere near this organized in the dissemination of messages. Secondly, the Roman emperor, although a monarch, was not the sort of absolutist dictatorial ruler as that of modern North Korea or of Nazi Germany. Instead, the head of the Roman state maintained power by negotiating and cultivating positive symbiotic relationships with many important constituencies in the Roman Empire: the Senate, the plebs urbana, the armies and their commanders, and provincial elites. Finally, state-sanctioned Roman imperial art was not formulated to persuade imperial subjects of the emperor's political agenda with the goal of changing attitudes.
What state-sanctioned imperial art did was to present the emperor in a positive light. In many cases, official state-sanctioned images, as appeared on the coinage, may not have been formulated by the imperial court at all. A prominent theory is that mint officials formulated the images and messages on the coins with the emperor foremost in mind as the primary audience. In this scenario, much of Roman art was akin to contemporary poetry and panegyric which aggrandized and honored the emperor. Indeed, contemporary imperial coinage and text often reflected the same ideals, indicating that they reflected the political rhetoric of the day. Even if the goal of much of the official art and coinage was to flatter the emperor, it also was seen, used, and experienced by viewers throughout the Roman world and so the communicative aspects of art and coinage ought not to be dismissed even though it was not "propaganda" in our typical understanding of the world. One of the best and most recent discussions of the differences between the modern word "propaganda" and the communicative aspects of Roman imperial art that I have read is in Carlos Noreña's, Imperial Ideals in the Roman West (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 15-21. On p. 18, Noreña makes reference to another scholar (Ellul) who distinguished between "agitation" and "integration" propaganda. He summarizes as follows.
Generally speaking, Fairey's prints in the early 2000s and today exhibit the sort of dissent that is hardly observable in Roman art. Fairey understands his own work as a sort of propaganda, borrowing directly from propagandist media, such as Socialist Realist posters, to make his points. One might then see his work as "agitation propaganda" as it seeks to make the viewer aware of problems with the official state-sanctioned narrative. He exhibits what we seldom have record of in the Roman visual arts: resistance and reaction to the contemporary political rhetoric and culture. Fairey also has a following who hold the same beliefs and values that he does and some of his pieces might also be seen as a sort of "integration propaganda" to which the official Roman imperial art media might have been more related; it would probably be a like-minded individual who would consume something like "Pay Up or Shut Up" or "Farewell to Freedom." Although the signed and numbered prints are limited, he often makes unsigned and unnumbered pasters, like the "Hope" poster in 2008, that can be used to saturate the public with a message. Like the imperial coinage, in which certain ideals were reinforced consistently over time, Fairey has also reinforced ideals and concepts through time, such as campaign finance reform; this has been a theme in much of his work for several years now. What draws me intellectually to the study of Roman art and coinage is the fact that they are historical monuments that tell us about the regime's politics and ideals at a moment in time long ago. They represent pictorially the way that the regime conceived of itself and projected itself (either in a direct or indirect way). While having the feel of an official medium, Fairey's art is anti-establishment and criticizes perceived problems in our present democracy through autocratic and commercial imagery and styles. Fairey makes art for the living, as the Romans did, but he advocates for progressive change and points out issues that potentially could compromise democracy or otherwise degrade our society. But as the years pass, his work will, like those Roman objects, become the realm of history. We or our successors will have the opportunity to see if his concerns were valid. Some of his work has unquestionably already entered that historical realm."While agitation propaganda seeks to change attitudes, according to Ellul's definition, integration propaganda seeks to bolster them. The former is more visible and widespread, is often subversive, and bears 'the stamp of opposition,' while the latter aims instead at 'stabilizing the social body,' making it 'the preferred instrument of government.' This distinction is useful, and helps to explain why the imperial regime ever bothered to communicate a set of ideals and values associated with the reigning emperor. In general, there was not much in the way of agitation propaganda in the Roman imperial period. During the high empire in particular, there was little need to change attitudes and - even more important - the actual mechanics of imperial communications would have made it almost impossible to do so. That the regular, long-term dissemination of imperial ideals was instead intended, at least in part, to reinforce belief in the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule seems more plausible....But the official communication of imperial ideals by the central state necessarily entailed a positive valuation of imperial rule, which in turn entailed a degree of persuasion, even if only implicit. Moreover, one of the media available to the imperial regime, the coinage, was particularly well suited to the slow, long-term diffusion of ideas upon which such integration propaganda depends. As a preliminary conclusion, then, we may see the central state in idealizing the figure of the emperor through a set of ideals and values associated with him, was motivated at least in part by the goal of reinforcing the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule."
I am well aware that at this stage I have only a perfunctory knowledge of this artist's work, but I plan to continue to learn.