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One might argue that commercial success is not the same thing as artistic success, but Warhol taught us that things can be otherwise. Business art was the ultimate validation of one’s aesthetic skills. If people bothered to buy an artist’s work then by extension one could conclude that the artist was producing good art. These days, the intimate relationship between money and successful art means that really good art sells. And maybe some good art doesn’t sell, but when the bohemian art demigod Ryan McGinley gets hired to do photography for the New York Times and has an entire project devoted to documenting Kate Moss, one might say that the economic market validated what the art world already knew: McGinley is an art superstar. His commercial success is merely a signal of his brilliance. Art goers can bicker endlessly about whether commercial art validates or detracts from the virtue of an artist, but ultimately this is an existential debate: The reality is that given the opportunity to make a living out of making art, many artists will choose to do so and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

When I interviewed Shepard Fairey several months ago for the research I conduct, he (like the other artists I spoke with) bore no ill will toward either the masses or the elite art world. He just wanted to do what he loved to do, and he was happy that it had been a successful venture that allowed him to provide an income for himself and own his own company. He also told me that it was important that he was able to get his art out there to as many people as possible. As he put it, “I can make pieces that are expensive but I want to sell $35 screen prints and $25 T-shirts. Where I am coming from in my work is that art is empowering. I want people to be able to access me…I never started as a fine artist and felt like a ‘sell out’. I went in the opposite direction. I really like the street artist – you didn’t have to submit to a gallery or a magazine, you just went out and did it…A T-shirt is a walking piece of art. When I do a record label’s album cover, I am producing art that gives people pleasure while listening.”

Elizabeth Currid
Gawker

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