Let’s finish that conversation with Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where the Shepard Fairey retrospective continues through Aug. 16.
LACAYO: There’s a presumption sometimes that business messages are legitimate even if the businesses haven’t paid for the canvas. Do advertisers have to buy licenses to do skywriting? Then again, the skywriting erases itself. One thing I always liked about Shepard’s “Obey” posters was that they were like advertisements that got right to the point — no soft sell, just an order.
MEDVEDOW: The power of that “Obey” idea is amazing. It’s lasted for 20 years and it basically means “Why do you believe what’s put out there? — Don’t obey, question.” But street art also raises issues of generations, race and class. At the museum we’ve gotten responses from people saying to us in effect, “We’d be fine with street art in derelict neighborhoods, but not ours.”
LACAYO: Right, but that gets to the heart of the accusation some people make against people who legitimize street art by putting it in museums or for that matter into magazines and magazine websites. The argument goes that we’re fine with it in somebody else’s neighborhood but would go ballistic if somebody tagged our own property. And there’s some validity to that claim — I find certain kinds of street art pretty interesting when I see it on the Lower East Side but I might not feel that way if it turned up in my own neighborhood.
MEDVEDOW: You might if it was a Shepard Fairey. Shepard is doing visually complex works of art that are quite sophisticated images. He’s not “tagging”, not spraying graffiti.
LACAYO: Understood, but then the problem arises, can you legitimize some of the better street art without opening the door to any run of the mill, mindless graffiti? Can you endorse some work without endorsing the basic first practice of street art, which usually requires appropriating somebody else’s property as the canvas for your work? Sometimes that property is pretty skeevy and the street art makes it more interesting. I’ve seen Banksies on bare brick walls in London that were hilarious and beautiful. Sometimes the street art is easily detachable so it lives its life in public for a while and then gets hauled away, no harm done. But sometimes it defaces valuable stuff.
MEDVEDOW: It’s important to remember that tagging, like hip hop and DJ-ing, are ways that historically unheard, unempowered voices express themselves. Some of those messages, whether or not we like them, we actually need to see.
LACAYO: What would you do if somebody tagged your house?
MEDVEDOW: I’d clean it — unless it was a Shepard Fairey, in which case I’d invite everybody over. And we have Shepard’s work on several private homes in Boston — with permission. But if it was something I found not beautiful, or offensive, I would clean it.
LACAYO: Well the other irony here is that at this point a Shepard Fairey in your neighborhood may well be a property-value enhancer.
MEDVEDOW: What’s really interesting to me about this show is how many different artistic traditions Shepard has been able to draw on in his art, from Art Nouveau wallpaper to agitprop — things that don’t usually go together. Look at his new work, it’s all about currency, paper currency. He started it before the economic crisis, and it’s about inappropriate capitalism. It’s not anti-capitalist, but it’s about the excesses of capitalism. I’m excited that we can be showing art that deals with these issues, and that people are also blown away by how beautiful it is.