I enjoyed Ken Johnson’s article of March 17th about Shepard Fairey’s “art,” or, in Mr. Johnson’s words, “a kind of visual easy listening for the college-educated masses.” What caught my attention was not so much the assessment of Fairey’s work specifically, but Johnson’s overarching point about the mind-numbing effect of supposedly mind-opening works that go wrong by explicitly attempting implicit subversiveness.
There is a bigger-picture umbrella point of which Johnson’s commentary on the “fatally familiar” idea of “being subversive through art” could well be a derivative or example. Maybe, as Johnson suggests, Fairey’s overly artful endeavors reflect a “naiveté” regarding the real world of popular culture in which “every day we are swamped with images and ideas that pretend to confound conventional thinking.” But maybe, Fairey is just another person struggling, though perhaps naively, to express his grievances within a world that has become largely desensitized to dissent. Maybe, the problem confronts not just Fairey and those like him; maybe it’s not even limited to artists. In fact, there is a question that looms large over everybody (in America? or elsewhere too?) who cares to make any improvements to the world we live in: how does one truly make a statement when nearly every statement has been made and every method worn to the ground? How does one communicate with impact?
The challenge of communicating with impact is two-fold; it is a matter of both apathy and general ineffectiveness. Consider, for example, the official protest zones that are becoming increasingly commonplace at political events. True, the ACLU and others have launched many a campaign against so-called “free speech zones.” Yet the cordoning off of protesters is also increasingly accepted as routine, along with the protest itself. Consider the people inside the protest zone. They wield predictable “End the War” or “Impeach Bush” signs. Some have come equipped with lawn chairs and coolers. When the offensive event is over, most will pack up their signs and their picnics; they’ll return home to eat dinner with the family and maybe check the t.v. for coverage of their valiant efforts before heading to bed.
When protests are anticipated like sporting events—the number of attendees predicted in advance, their disruptive impact preemptively minimized through measures like “free speech zones”— the protesters’ message loses all spheres of potential leverage. The act of protest too loses meaning when the protesters themselves treat it like a sporting event and those few who bring greater passion to the table (or, to the barricaded zone) are seen as objects of idle amusement by people surfing the news for topics of conversation the next day. When we (protesters and onlookers alike) accept the barricades, accept the business-as-usual methods of protest, both the message and the act of its delivery are doomed to fall flat together.
The problem here is not “all of you pretending to protest or standing by” whom I might seem to be reproaching from the non-existent loft of “neutral commentator.” The problem is the inevitability of falling into one of those reproachfully impotent positions—if not for lack of passion, for lack of effective techniques of persuasion. Most of today’s potential protesters have all either “been there & done that” in the 60’s and 70’s or “seen pictures & heard all about it.” The will to stand up for our beliefs through unstructured and sometimes sacrificial channels is shriveling up. Meanwhile, more structured channels are equally tired and ineffective; we are so accustomed to activist outcry over various “issues” and “causes” that the causes all start to blend together. The impossibility of contributing to every issue or even choosing between them resonates more acutely than the pictures of starving children and dying forests.
And, to bring the discussion back to where I started with Shepard Fairey, art itself has become so intentionally (whether more or less overtly) message-laden that the artists’ messages frequently fall upon ears deafened by all the noise and eyes blinded by too much light. Everybody is trying to say something; we have over-communicated. We have also subjected the art of communication to laboratory-like study and treatment, boiling it down into sterilized sets of testable and teachable techniques designed for specific stakeholders; the grassroots activist cheerily totes his trusty toolkit of petitions and postcards while the politician delivers her litany of sound bytes and rhetorical flourishes. In our scientific mastery of communication, we have undermined our ability to communicate anything seriously at all.
So never mind certain obvious barriers to effective protest, like the startling lack of media coverage of the people who did passionately attempt to get their message out at the RNC last fall, or secretive administrative conduct that conceals protestable practices from the public to begin with. Equally if not more disconcerting is the answer to the question: “even given full information and a free public platform of expression—even given passionate dedication—how can I make my voice heard and my ideas resonate?” At this point in time, I think the collective answer is, “I don’t know.”
Ken Johnson suggests a different answer when he says, “maybe if some such psychological dimension were more consciously integrated, Mr. Fairey’s work would be more like art than like canny illustration of what everyone already knows” (emphasis added). Maybe. But, I fear, probably not. Strategically, when it comes to inspiring change or saying something new, age-old channels like art and politics might still be best. But tactically, succeeding may mean thinking much farther outside the box; it may even mean abandoning thought altogether at times when to be deliberate is only to “pretend to confound conventional thinking.”
At the end of the day, we are not left entirely without hope as long as communicating with impact is rooted in the ability to inspire others. As long as inspiration remains in the world—and surely we have all been inspired, whether by a Renoir or a Fairey or an Oscar-winning movie—it must be possible to move individuals, as well as the collective, toward a vision of something better. But we need to work harder, to find new ways to inspire and to open ourselves up to inspiration.