The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 33: ASSASSINATION: Brian Sherwin, Senior Editor of myartspace, Artist, and Art Critic (Part Two)

leave a comment »

qi peng: You have been critical of Shepard Fairey‘s stance on copyright infringement and his “Obey Giant” branding. What were your objections and what is the story behind this disagreement?

Brian Sherwin: I want to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with being successful. I want artists to be successful. However, I also want emerging artists to be able to protect their work from the abuse of profiteers who take an extreme position regarding “fair use“ for their own gain. I don’t care if it is a corporation, an artist, or an artist who owns a corporation– they should not prey on the images of emerging artists. An artist can be successful and sustain a level of integrity. If the laws allow abuse perhaps they should be changed as far as visual art is concerned. I warn you now that this will be lengthy.

My problem with Shepard Fairey is that he seems to lack integrity. There is something wrong when an artist who claims that people should “question everything” fails to answer specific questions adequately during interviews or fails to answer questions from the audience during Q&A sessions. Ask Fairey about copyright infringement allegations and he will often go into a rant about the charitable causes he has raised money for as if it is a shield protecting him from questions about his work ethic. Ask him about emerging artists who have used his images under “fair use” and he will call them “mimics”, “parasites”, or worse. That is why I question his integrity.

That said, I realize that many people defend Shepard Fairey by suggesting that he is a “rule breaker”, a “visual revolutionary” and that he “fights the law”– go to his website and you will see that every page has copyright information, every image has copyright info, and the free downloads he offers involve legal speak that prevent individuals from using the free content for profit. Shepard Fairey embraces the law as it applies to him– so this persona that people have created for him– or that he has helped to create–  is not exactly backed by his actions. Thus, it is amusing that people are now comparing him to Robin Hood. Honestly, most of his strongest supporters seem to think that buying is rebelling. These rabid Fairey fans would not recognize a revolution if it took place in their own backyard.

Copyright is very important concerning the market and technology of today. People talk about how “fair use” needs to be extended due to the technology of today– they feel that an extreme interpretation of “fair use“ is needed to secure creative freedoms. They often forget to mention the ease in which an individual can make reproductions from images found online today and the fact that many of the artists advocating for extended “fair use“, such as Shepard Fairey, profit from the random images they find online. They are waving the banner of creative freedom when in reality the focus is on profit and profit alone– their profit. Profit with total disregard for the profit and market of their peers.

The fact remains that a skilled artist can use computer programs to alter an image they found online in order to suggest that it is their own– or they can simply print off copies of the image in order to make changes to it. That is not to suggest that artists using these programs are not artists or that computer based art is of no value. It all comes down to responsibility and respect for other artists– Shepard Fairey, to me, represents artists who display neither. Those who support his view of “fair use” either don’t care about how hard it is for artists to establish a market for their work or they embrace his practice within their own methods of artistic creation involving works for profit.

My issue with extended views of “fair use” is that an artist can spend months or years working on an oil painting or sculpture only to end up with another artists using an image of that painting or sculpture for a project that may have only taken days to create. In a sense, you could say that the artists working in traditional mediums need to have their work protected from the technology of today. Telling those artists not to upload images online is not the answer. All artists deserve to gain exposure online knowing that their work is protected by strong copyright. Unfortunately, copyright is constantly under attack.

More artists than ever are making a living or part of their living from selling their art. These artists need to know that their images are protected. Their collectors need to know that their investment is secure. In other words, artists must be able to defend the exclusive rights to their art– to their business and legacy. That is why so many art organizations and individuals have stood against orphan works legislation in recent years due to the fact that if passed the legislation would have greatly reduced the ability of living artists to protect and defend their art in court.

I realize that copyright issues can quickly become a debate between freedom of speech/expression and control. However, suggesting that supporters of strong copyright are attacking creative freedom is not exactly fair considering that the issue of copyright infringement does not become an issue until price tags are involved. If an artist wants to explore the work of another artist directly, fine– it becomes an issue when the artist attaches a price to the ‘new’ image or produces prints of the ‘new’ image for profit. We would not be facing this debate if it were not for the fact that some individuals think that it is acceptable to profit off of the hard work of others.

Securing creative freedom is one thing– the desire to legitimize irresponsible and disrespectful appropriation for profit is another. Creative freedom is not under attack– the rights of artists to secure their artwork and images of their artwork by copyright is. The ability for artists to protect the market for their art is under attack. Those on the other side of the aisle continue to wave the banner of creative freedom– I wish they would just come out and say what their battle charge is really about. They want to be able to profit off of the works of others while at the same time protecting their ‘new‘ images from “profiteers“, “mimics“, and “parasites“. They want the best of both worlds. Point that out and those artists will often flee from a debate on this issue.

Think of it this way– many of the artists who support an extended view of “fair use”, such as Shepard Fairey and Joy Garnett,  are the same artists who create art utilizing the work of others for profit. They are represented by galleries– they know the business side of art. So are they really champions of freedom and free-culture? Or are they just protecting their own business by supporting standards that would make it harder for other business-minded artists to protect their images from their use? Don’t get me wrong, “fair use” is important– however it should not be extended to the point that a widely known artist can base his or her career working directly from artwork by relatively unknown artists for profit.

The contradictions of these artists concern me. Shepard Fairey has sent cease-and-desist letters to two artists in recent years. If profit is not the issue and Fairey wants free-culture to dominate I would think he would be OK with other artists profiting off of his widely known images since he has done the same thing with lesser known artists, such as Rene Mederos. I would also think that he would not trademark words claiming that only he can use those words in a work of art if he honestly supports the idea of free-culture. This is why I have concerns about Shepard Fairey and what he represents. The contradictions and hypocrisy is tiresome.  I’m not attacking creative freedom with my opinion– I’m standing up for what the majority of artists have fought long and hard for. Don’t confuse creative freedom with the need for some artists to profit off of other artists.

To put it bluntly, it is going to be horrible if artists allow their rights to be stamped out in the name of creative freedom when the artists leading this charge, such as Shepard Fairey, are thinking more about their bank accounts than real creative freedom. Since when did creative freedom involve the need to profit from others? Are we defining creative freedom by dollar signs now? Let us not confuse the two! We should examine what Shepard Fairey is really saying when he uses these powerful words– “creative” and “freedom”.

In my opinion, he is seeking the freedom to be creative with the work of other living or recently deceased artists in order to profit without consequences. He desires the freedom to go against their intentions and legacy while expecting others to ‘obey’ his intentions and legacy.  He is no different than the people who strongly supported aspects of the recent orphan works legislation which would have harmed the ability of living artists to protect their art. It is as simple as that. If we define creative freedom with a dollar sign the arts are truly doomed.

qi peng: What is your viewpoint on censorship, even on artists whose intents you may not agree with at all?

Brian Sherwin: I’m against censorship of art. However, there is a time and place for aggressive images. Meaning, that I don’t think a curator should exploit public reaction by placing highly controversial images in a way that they know will provoke public outrage. Most of the controversies that occur over art happen because a curator decides to display the most controversial image they can near a window facing the public– or in some other way that addresses the public head-on. This places the artist, viewers, and the art itself at risk. If the work of art has a message it should be clear without being displayed in a confrontational manner.

A curator will tell you that they displayed the image in that manner in order to bring the issue to light– but in reality they most likely displayed it in an open– public– area in order to attract protestors and thus press. These are the little games that some curators play in order to make sure an exhibit is successful. That is not to suggest that is the case with all exhibit controversies. However, it often does happen due to irresponsible choices on the part of the curator.

I don’t want to see artwork censored– I can‘t stress that enough. That said, I do think that artists and curators should be responsible for when and how art is displayed. Provoking a violent protest outside of a gallery does not enforce a visual message– if anything it takes away from what could have been said had the public been introduced to the controversial work in a less over-the-top manner concerning where it is displayed within an exhibit. That is not to suggest that controversial works should become exhibit backroom oddities– there just needs to be more responsibility in how works are introduced to the public at large. That goes for physical as well as online venues.

qi peng: Is there anything else that you wish to share with the readers here or fans of myartspace, NYAXE, or the NYAXE Gallery?

Brian Sherwin: Only that I do my best to bring attention to the site and to spotlight as many artists as possible. If anyone wants me to view their art or exhibit info they are more than welcome to send info to

We have recently been exploring Twitter as a way to promote our artists, We also recently launched a community forum,  We also have a Daily Art Feed. The Daily provides a fresh new piece of contemporary art to subscribers every day. You can get it in three ways — by email, on your Facebook Profile and through an RSS feed. There is also the Weekly. Member can subscribe to the Weekly when they join the site– non-members can sign up for the Weekly at

For your reference, this is a short list of current and former myartspace jurors:

Vanessa DesClaux, assistant curator of performance at Tate Modern
Tom Morton is a curator at the Hayward Gallery and contributing editor at Frieze
Rancesco Manacorda curator at the Barbican Art Gallery in London
James Rondeau of the Art Institute of Chicago
Jessica Morgan of the Tate Modern
Steven Zevitas of New American Paintings
Henry Horenstein from the Rhode Island School of Design
Dr. Juliet Hacking from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London
Clare Freestone from the National Portrait Gallery in London
Elisabeth Sussman, Senior Curator, The Whitney Museum
Janet Bishop, Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
JoAnne Northrup, Senior Curator, San Jose Museum of Art
Michael Workman, Founder, Bridge Art Fair

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 2:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: