Launched in 2011 by the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Artists for Positive Social Change is a “university-wide series of events, lectures, and performances that highlights one high-profile issue, artist or genre each year.” Inaugurating this five-year initiative, 2011-12 was the year of hip-hop and saw Public Enemy descend on the SFUAD campus for a free concert. The school hosted a graffiti workshop alongside classes in writing rap lyrics, hip-hop music and breakdancing. The goal was to distill hip-hop as a significant form of communication, as an art form that at its inception “gave voice to voiceless people.” This first year of Artists for Positive Social Change also proved that SFUAD is kinda cool.
Now in its second year, the theme is “Art and Political Activism.” Behold Shepard Fairey, who came to campus last Sunday night (February 17, 2013) for a Q&A with SFUAD’s graphic design department chair, David Grey. During the week of February 18, Fairey will also designed and painted a permanent outdoor mural on the school campus. This is the artist whose 1990s Andre the Giant sticker went viral before viral meant on the Internet. It was a different kind of dissemination, one grounded in street art. He created the sticker while attending the Rhode Island School of Design where his tendencies toward punk, skateboarding and other countercultures were sometimes disparaged by professors. Fairey admitted that he never thought he’d be taken seriously as a fine artist. If he had, he alleged, it might have paralyzed him.
In 2008, Fairey designed Barack Obama’s Hope Poster, the very icon of Obama’s grassroots energy. That poster is why Fairey typifies this year’s “art and political activism” theme. Its impact was immense and although not officially affiliated with the presidential campaign, it alone must have mobilized hundreds of thousands of voters. In Fairey’s words, he is making art for the world he wants to live in. That alone is inspiration for SFUAD artists.
The Hope Poster’s imagery evolved from yes, an AP photo, but also its subversion of visual culture. In all of his work, the artist pulls from Russian Constructivism, pop art, hip-hop, punk, skateboarding, and artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Barbara Kruger. He raids the cultural image bank and riffs on it, appropriating elements to change the way we see things and ideally even think about things. ‘Fair use’ copyright battles aside, Fairey asks us to “consume with discretion” and on his website http://www.obeygiant.com/about sites Heidegger’s account of Phenomenology to “enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured.”
If one thing was clear from listening to Fairey talk, it’s that he knows his culture. From band trivia and blogging to politics and economics, this guy knows what’s up and he probably has an opinion about it. He quoted Led Zeppelin, wore a black Ramones t-shirt, spoke openly about “selling out,” patience, his process and how it’s changed with time and the Internet, and when prompted, admitted to being arrested 16 times. The Greer Garson Theatre was packed with students and community members who lined up for a Q&A that could’ve lasted all night. Luckily, students have the opportunity all week to ask Fairey questions as he painted an indelible public artwork on the SFUAD campus.