Last month we asked if Jon McNaughton was the right artist to take Thomas Kinkade's place in American culture and decided that it was not a good fit: McNaughton's much more concerned with ranting than actually painting. No, the next Painter of Light cannot be somebody with too many complex ideas. He needs to present something as familiar and easy to pull on as the cozy fall sweaters you're currently pulling out of your dresser drawers. The work should be ubiquitous and unchallenging, suitable for Facebook. And if you support our current president you already may have clicked 'like' on the work of one such artist already, that is the "Hope" poster of the now-famous street artist Shepard Fairey. Salon called Jon McNaughton the right's Shepard Fairey, but could it possibly be the other way around? Is Fairey the left's McNaugton? Is Fairey the left's Thomas Kinkade?
if you live in a city, there's a good chance that somewhere not far away there's a little greeting-card-and-tchotchke store filled with kitschy Kinkade merchandise. And there's also a good chance that near this store there'll be a street sign populated with Fairey's stickers. Depending on your cultural orientation, you may tend to notice the one and not the other. But Fairey's André the Giant images and certainly his "Hope" poster are as iconic and recognizable as Kinkade's cottages. And what, exactly, do they mean? Nothing. Or everything, whatever you want. As we've noted, Kinkade was visual Splenda: no story, no substance, all atmosphere. Fairey's work is not so different. The stylized face of the cult 1980s wrestling figure with the admonition to "Obey" is a page right out of the Dada playbook in that it's essentially meaningless. Fairey's message is solely in the method: put art where you're not supposed to! Redefine your environment! Subvert the establishment! Or not. Where the Dada artists used absurdity to make a point, Fairey only uses it to strengthen a brand.
There are many people who have accused Shepard Fairey of becoming a sell-out. The truth is, though, that he's never not been a sell-out, because by trade he's a graphic designer. His job is to make stuff look cool, which he does spectacularly well. Like Kinkade's, Fairey's fantasy world is also one that doesn't exist. His aesthetic is an ubercool mashup of Soviet propaganda, Eastern textile patterns, and American psychedelic and pop art. Whether or not he was really guilty of a "fair use" violation with the Obama poster is another discussion entirely. His work is a pastiche, a "statue with blank eyeballs," in the words of Fredric Jameson, in that it randomly cannibalizes historical artifacts and reference points, intentionally stripping them of their original contexts in the service of visual "spectacle." Remember when Nike used the Beatles' "Revolution" in a TV ad (and, even more ironically, when they re-recorded a version of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not be Televised?"), tipping off the era in which alluding to counterculture is now the de rigueur marketing strategy of Honda and Apple and any number of luxury brands? That is essentially Fairey's genius, staking out a style that makes sense on the street and on a Saks bag. His 2010 show which closed out Deitch Projects in New York almost looked like a "Greatest Revolution Hits" as curated by Spencer's Gifts: John Lennon, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix. The only thing missing was the velvet. It's a nice have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too position, not so unlike being able to call a painting an "original," because it's been "highlighted" by a mall employee (sound familiar?). To underscore the similarity between the two, here's a list of companies that, at one time or another, employed either Kinkade or Fairey. Can you guess which artist worked for which corporate giant? (Scroll down to the end for the answers.)
1. Turner Entertainment
5. Dick Clark Productions
6. FOX Studios
7. Johnson & Johnson
8. Paramount Pictures
Despite the differing voting patterns of their fan bases, the two artists are more similar than they are different. They're the twin offspring of Warhol, who said that "good business is the best art." You could argue that both are panderers in that they capitalize on existing, market-tested assumptions, selling them back to the audiences that want them the most. But even more interesting is the uneasy relationships both artists have with those ostensible audiences. Surely, many Christians observed that Kinkade's relationship to his Creator often seemed less significant than his relationship to the bright golden calf, and Fairey's supporters have sniffed more than a whiff of opportunism in his progressive impulses—after all, it's not like he was out there designing posters for Dennis Kucinich. Hope or Light? You choose. But they both look good over the sofa.
Answers: 1. Kinkade 2. Both 3. Fairey 4. Kinkade 5. Fairey 6. Fairey 7. Fairey 8. Fairey 9. Kinkade
Previously: Searching With Light: Is Jon McNaughton The Next Thomas Kinkade?
Drew Dernavich is a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine (not that cartoonist – the other one) and the co-creator of the cartoon improv show Fisticuffs! He is on Twitter.