Sunday, July 5, 2015

Shepard Fairey and Roman Art

Aside from one upper-level course in Greek or Roman art history per semester, I also teach the Art History survey sequence: Prehistory to Medieval Art in the fall and Renaissance to Contemporary Art in the spring.  Even though my specialty is Antiquity, I find the second half of the survey is somehow more enjoyable to teach.  Maybe it is because I am not as "close" to it and can allow myself to have more fun with the subject when teaching.  One of my favorite artists to teach in the second half of the survey is Shepard Fairey, whose art I have also recently begun to collect.  I find the students also enjoy learning about him as they recognize his work in popular culture and wear Obey shirts (they are often thrilled to learn what Obey on their shirts is about as many don't already know).  As I work in a department driven primarily by a studio art program, a significant number of my survey students are graphic design majors.  One of the many hats that Shepard Fairey wears is that of a graphic designer; that is perhaps another reason the students enjoy seeing Fairey's work as he is an artist who has foot in both fine art and design. 

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.
Much of Fairey's work, especially his signed and numbered serigraphs are relatively affordable; they sell from roughly $45-$65 on his website if you can get them immediately as they are released.  The price point is intentional as Fairey wants his fans to be able to afford his work.  Older prints, or ones that you miss during a release, are available for a markup in the secondhand market.  The rarity of and demand for the print in question dictates the degree of that markup.  Over the past year, I have begun collecting Shepard Fairey's serigraphs and have thus far acquired eight prints and many books about his art. I plan to continue to grow the collection.  Two of these prints are quite rare and historical: "Progress" from 2008 (edition of 350), which contained the same iconic image as "Hope" print/poster, of which half a million posters were printed.  The "Progress" preceded that iconic, nearly identical, "Hope" image.  After the release of "Progress", the campaign adopted the image, asking Fairey to use the word "Hope" instead as a campaign poster.  As an art historian and archaeologist, the historic and documentary quality of the "Progress" piece particularly appealed to me.  It is an original print of one of the most recognizable images of the early 21st century, a part of our contemporary popular culture. The other print, "War: Everyone Wants It" from 2003 (edition of 200) is biting critique of the Iraq War, begun in 2003, through both image and text.  Although both are rare and desirable prints among collectors, I think I was able to acquire both of these historical pieces at reasonable prices - an important consideration for an academic.

Shepard Fairey, Pay Up or Shut Up, 2015.
For one recent acquisition, I was lucky to have beaten the notorious "eBay flippers," who purchase Fairey prints and immediately put them on eBay for two or three times the purchase price, and buy directly from Obey: "Pay Up or Shut Up" (2015, signed and numbered edition of 450).  This print depicts Uncle Sam's hand - his identity evident from the patriotic decoration on the sleeve of his suit - covering the mouth of a gentleman in a suit and tie, thereby silencing him.  At the top left, the text reads "All the Free Speech Money Can Buy."  At the lower right of the image is the Obey Giant logo and the title "Pay Up or Shut Up."  The print critiques the Citizens United supreme court decisions regarding Super PACs and donors to them.  The effect of this, as Fairey and others have described it, is the equation of money with speech and influence as politicians benefiting from wealthy PACsand donors will be unduly influenced by corporate and commercial interests.  The combination of text image points out the need for campaign finance reform to maintain legitimate democracy.  The sloganeering and fonts recall American 1950s-era advertisements that seem innocent enough on the surface, but from a 21st-century perspective many of these old advertisements smacked of racism or sexism, or cutely peddled dangerous products, such as cigarettes.

Shepard Fairey, Farewell to Freedom, 2014. 

Beyond mid-20th advertisements, Fairey's work clearly draws influence and inspiration from multiple artists, movements, and popular art media.  Perusing through a gallery of his works, one readily observes the influence of Social Realism, and especially Socialist Realism, in many of his pieces.  As a politically-minded artist, Fairey uses the visual cues of Socialist Realist imagery, accompanied by clearly ironical or satirical slogans, to point out dangerous flaws in contemporary American democracy that potentially corrode our democracy (I think he would say they do corrode that democracy) and put us on a path to autocracy and oligarchy, and/or corporatocracy.  Other works use the same visual style to exalt certain figures, such as freedom fighters and advocates for peace such as Aung San Suu Kyi. One recent piece deploying the style of Socialist Realism is "Farewell to Freedom" (signed and numbered edition of 500), an homage to comedian and political-news satirist Stephen Colbert of the recently-ended Colbert Report.  The slogan was also that of Colbert's last show. Stephen Colbert asked Shepard Fairey, previously a guest on the Report as well as a guest on the last show, to design the image for his final episode; signed and numbered prints were also released on the Obey Giant website.  In this example, the imagery seems to me to provide Colbert-inspired satire while the text may reflect Fairey's sentiment.  Stephen, using the American flag as a cape, stands to the left in a three quarter pose, one leg striding forward with his foot resting upon a globe; he does not engage the viewer but looks up confidently as if a resolute and transcendent figure (not unlike portraits of Alexander the great with the dramatically twisted neck and upturned eyes - a feature curiously enough observable in the "Hope"/"Progress" image).  In his right hand he wields a sword and in his left he holds a round shield - not dissimilar to Captain America's shield - as an eagle soars in the background.  The image of Stephen Colbert as a sort of authoritarian, transcendent, and god-like individual draws upon historical images of monarchs and from Socialist Realism, but parodies them.  On the Colbert Report, Stephen's unbreakable persona of the consummate egoist and fiercely uncompromising politically partisan pundit sharply satirized political news-show hosts on 24-hour cable-news networks.  The image, therefore, was a fitting tribute to the persona Stephen Colbert had adopted.  The text, "Farewell to Freedom," used in jest by the Colbert Report, reinforced the humorous notion that the political pundits on 24-hour cable-news networks actively present themselves as patriotic defenders of democracy who drape their one-sided opinions in the flag; Colbert's departure from the show thus signifies a certain "end" to freedom.  Nonetheless, the "Farewell to Freedom" print perhaps conveys something more sentimental in that Stephen Colbert's biting satire, but strong substance, was perceived by the artist and by many others as more honest and penetrating than that of the news-channel pundits that his show skewered.

Shepard Fairey, These Parties Disgust Me, 2010.
Even though Fairey is generally unpopular among political conservatives, he, like Stephen Colbert, criticizes both Republicans and Democrats, looking beyond partisanship to examine the function and dysfunction of the organs of American democracy itself, and American society more broadly; he has criticized President Obama several times since the election (a recent example here).  While one might disagree with Fairey's position on certain issues, those literate in art ought to to appreciate his work.  I mean "appreciate" in the sense of what "art appreciation" means (i.e., there is a difference between liking it on the one hand and appreciating/understanding it on the other).  Fairey's art and its sharp indictments of the political establishment are not only activist statements themselves, but also are reflective of broader popular disappointment and discontentment with how the contemporary American political system and landscape has (d)evolved over the past couple of decades.  A 2010 print, "These Parties Disgust Me," criticizes the flawed two-party system, frustration with both major political parties, and the artist's sentiment that campaign finance reform may be an antidote.

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.
"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." 
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.

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.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Archaeological and Numismatic Book Seized from Islamic-State Militants Identified

In June it was reported that Kurdish fighters had seized some equipment from Turkish Islamic State Fighters in Syria and that among those items were archaeological and numismatic books.  One book showed images of Phoenician coins.  The photos of that book were blurry and it was difficult to identify the resource.

The mystery is now solved as Ute Wartenberg Kagan, Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, recognized the open page in the photograph as from an essay in a book she had used before: M. Sartre, "La Syrie sous la domination achéménide," in W. Orthmann and J.-M. Dentzer, Archéologie et Histoire de la Syrie II (Saarbrücken, 1989).  Compare photographs of the book seized from the militants and the same example in the ANS library (see more images here).
'New documents unravel ISIS-Turkish state cooperation’
(c) Mehmet Nuri Ekinci, Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF), 3rd June 2015

The book in the ANS Library.

In discussing the identification of the book, she concludes:
"For people interested in a general overview of coins from Syria, this book is indeed helpful. Articles by Christian Augé on “La monnaie en Syrie à l’époque hellénistique et romaine” (pp. 149–190, with four plates illustrating 71 coins) and by Cécile Morrisson (who won the ANS Huntington Medal in 1995) on “La monnaie en Syrie byzantine” provide excellent and well-illustrated introductions to the coins of this region. Her article gives a considerable amount of detailed scholarly information on site finds of coins in Syria."
"So this is an extremely unlikely find—a scholarly, not exactly inexpensive, and heavy—book on the archaeology of Syria in the hands of ISIS fighters. If anyone doubts the multifaceted connections between looted antiquities and war in Syria, this discovery has to make one wonder." (emphasis added)