the Moral Authority on Graphic Design is Over

Print Magazine - Milton Glaser on Shepard Fairey_1234237013704

After reading Milton Glaser on Shepard Fairey and Plagiarism from Print magazine, I couldn’t help but think wow – what a bunch of hypocrites. But not for what you might be thinking I have a problem with. I’m not going to try to convince you of one artist’s technique of interpretation. If you’re not a fan of how Shepard Fairey uses his voice, nothing I can say is going to change your opinion. What I take issue with is that Milton decides to speak up now about it. “It’s just too close to the original observations of the photographer. It doesn’t seem clean to me.” Fair enough – but surely he’s felt that way before. Why not feel the need to call out every single designer that he doesn’t think has done something right. I have a big problem with the selective moral authority that is all too common. If you’re going to make an example of one person, I’d hope he’d take the time to call out his friends and others that in the past that deserve the same moral lecture yet somehow b/c they’re well known in the old graphic design community, people just don’t bother saying anything. I find that completely hypocritical.

That brings me to Print magazine. Again, the number of design people that they celebrate on a monthly basis with out any critical attention is kind of interesting. If they’re going to get all moral, maybe they should sharpen their focus outside of fluff and talk more about designer’s influences, sources and getting real about the fact that nothing is original anymore. I think Fairey is an easy topic for them when compared with brand name designer that they typically pull quotes from. They would never turn the tables on the people that they rely on for “authority”. The reason why 95% of mainstream design writing can’t be taken seriously is that without the recognized name quoted in the story, there’s little substance left. Conventional thinking is that if you at least have a name quoted that people recognize it must be correct and significant. While I don’t hold much hope that things will change anytime soon w/ publications that rely on the same patterns to create a story, the fact that they’re not the only voice now makes them less relevant more then ever.

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  • Alex Charcahr

    Hey Michael,

    Long time reader, first time commenter, heh.

    I've been thinking about this one lately too, but i'm not sure I'd consider what you said fair? I think the reason Fairey was called out in this case is because of the AP suing him, no? Makes Print up-to-date, news-breaking, on top of things. And the reason Glaser got involved is because he was asked to? I kind of doubt he called up Print and said “Hey, this Fairey kid is getting on my nerves”.. He was asked his opinion, and he gave it.. and he said that his view is subjective.. it's how he feels.. do we agree? No, not really, but I can absolutely see his point of it being a dangerous example for students..

    if anything, i'd say it's print grabbing two names that mean something to two different ends of the design spectrum and smashing them together in an attempt to create some interest.. and good for them, it worked..

  • howard

    On a side-ish note, I have noticed quite a bit of the graphics are using the same visual language as was used in Russian revolution propaganda posters circa 1917 to portray images of Mr. Obama, and his message of hope/change. I can understand the visual simplicity of the message. Strong separation of colours and forms using hard transitions to relate to the political message of change, but my question is, is the visual reach-back to this type of graphic a correlation we want to be making? That of change now and change then? I truly believe that things will be better under this new administration. I just hope the media in all it's forms don't create a visual history that one day could be looked back upon and compared to other visual histories in a bad light.

  • Bryan Bedell

    I remember when I was in college (late 80s/early 90s) reading Glaser ranting (in Print, even!) about how David Carson's (and, IIRC, Emigre's) design was disposable and dated and gimmicky. “Sure, absolutely true,” I thought at the time, “But what could be more dated and gimmicky than Glaser's design? The dude designed BABYTEETH and his work reeks of the 70s.” Interestingly, Carson seems similarly desperate to defend his legacy.

    I guess my point is, I'm on the fence about Fairey's work, but Glaser's opinion surely isn't going to sway me.

  • Paulo

    Fairey using photos for reference is nothing new – he has been doing this for years. But he is the one who makes/gives the artwork it his own unique voice.

    That photo of Obama was a generic photo of the future president – it would never have become so iconic by itself. It took an artist Shepard Fairey to reinterpret it and by doing that he created his own original artwork – that is why that portrait of Obama became so iconic.

    “Good artists copy great artists steal” – look artists & designers have been copying from each other and their influences for years. I know Glaser was asked for his opinion but I don't think he should have answered it, it's not that cut and dry as he makes it seem. He believes in what he stated thats fine but then there are other artists/designers that I know he respects that have “referenced” their artwork/design and have become successful. Maybe Print Magazine should ask him his thoughts about them also. It's easy to make a statement about someone you don't really know it's harder when you know them or have followed their careers for years and have seen them develop.

    Some examples: Paula Scher with Swatch poster from 1985 is influenced by the Swiss Tourist posters from 1934, Peter Saville’s New Order’s Movement record cover is influenced by a futurist poster from 1932 and Andy Warhol took Campbells /Brillo packaging silkscreened onto canvas and created his own unique artwork.

  • matthew

    yes, this whole incident is ridiculous on so many levels. let's remove all still life and landscape art from museums and illustration annuals as OBVIOUSLY they are so heavily referenced, one can actually identify the source material!

  • Callie

    This should be in the same category as Michael Phelps smoking pot. Chillax, people. !!

    Talent borrows, genius steals. I guess it's okay when Paula Scher does it?

    I read that the photographer is actually claiming rights, contradicting the AP's statement. He also said he likes what Fairey did with his photo. This should be interesting…..

    What if Fairey had hand-drawn the photo (I'm assuming he stylized the actual photo in Photoshop). Would rendering a copy by hand still be considered plagiarism?

  • Alex Charcahr

    Actually, if memory serves, Paula Scher wasn't exactly smiled upon by the design community for her swatch poster.. in fact, in her book she states that Tibor Kalman ripped into it and she was denied access to the AGI.. so it didn't exactly go smoothly for her either..

    And i'd say he actually illustarted it from scratch rather than actually fiddled with the original poster.. either way, it's all just a bit silly, isn't it?

    As Paulo said, it was a generic photo of the PRESIDENT.. And what use is there in suing him at this point? He didn't make any money off it (although, I guess it could be said he gained more recoginition, which means more work, which means.. yeah, so on).. and the campaign is over.. perhaps, some high-up anti-Obama people are just taking whatever jabs they can?