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Time to Diss Obey: the Failure of Identity Politics and Protest

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”- Bertolt Brecht

Radical/revolutionary artists have historically served to convey messages of dissent and hope in response to institutionalized injustice and repression (see here). In its purest form, radical art is not beholden to political, economic or artistic establishments and cannot be used for commercial interests or propaganda. Radical visual art has typically been made accessible to public consumption in the form of murals in the streets or within freely accessible public institutions. Today, street art and modern graffiti are art forms that can provide free art and non-curated radical content to the masses.

Shephard Fairey aka Obey is a well-known street artist. To those of us who love the genre, Obey is a godfather: his signature image of Andre the Giant is iconic. Obey’s work has graced countless city walls, galleries and museums around the world and has been mimicked by young artists everywhere.

Shephard Fairey became a household name in 2008 due to his popular Barack Obama propaganda “HOPE” poster. A symbol of optimism and liberal identity politics, the artwork soon became the subject of a lawsuit where Fairey was found guilty of using the image that inspired “HOPE” without permission from its source (AP), and later tampered with- and fabricated evidence to conceal his culpability.

In addition to his guerilla street art, Fairey is a graphic designer who partners with big corporations, such as Nike and Saks Fifth Avenue (for a list, see here). As a result, many in the art establishment in general and the graffiti/street art niche in particular feel that Fairey sold out.

Nowadays, Shephard Fairey has come up with a new protest campaign in collaboration with the Amplifier Foundation and inspired by the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. The project, called “We the people: public art for the inauguration and beyond”, aims to “disrupt the rising tide of hate and fear in America”. With a range of rewards and souvenirs, the Kickstarter campaign has garnered more than a million dollars (with an original goal set at $60,000). Fairey and his collaborators will use this treasure to produce artwork that can be attached to protest signs and banners and distributed to people attending the inauguration in Washington DC on January 20th.

“We the people” is comprised of five portraits of individuals from different minority communities. It aims to “spark a conversation” about our differences and collective humanity and is a response to Donald Trump’s hateful, misogynist rhetoric.

Sounds great, right? The problem is that this art focuses on precisely the type of identity politics, change-from-within approach that has enabled the ascension of a corrupt reality-show celebrity billionaire to the highest office in the United States.

“We the people” is an entirely legal, populist, low-risk and opportunistic campaign that appeals to the widest common denominator with the added value of a cool and potentially valuable souvenir to take home at the end of the day. It neutralizes legitimate rage at corrupt politics, redirects it at divisive identity issues, and by so doing exempts the very system that created and continues to perpetuate the crises humanity faces. Sure, “We the people” addresses some of the important symptoms of American capitalism and imperialism such as racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia, but it conveniently ignores and distracts attention from the source of the pathology.

The unfettered version of American capitalism, in which public welfare is privatized and inequality is at record levels is to blame for the current climate of hatred and scapegoating. In this grotesque and unjust reality, calls for more “tolerance” are tame. Protest art focused on identity, embodied by Obey’s “We the people”, serves as a smokescreen, a divide-and-conquer tool in the hands of elites that does not challenge the perpetual class struggle in which the rich exploit workers and plunder public resources.

The lie of identity politics is epitomized by America’s first African-American President Barack Obama who obediently served the capitalist elites. Obama bailed out the criminal bankers, accelerated the US war machine and deported millions of immigrants, all at the expense of some of the core constituencies that elected him into office, including African-Americans.

This past election season the elitist faction of the Democratic Party used identity politics to promote Hillary Clinton as their nominee instead of the populist candidate Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s womanhood was the ultimate reason for her worthiness of the presidency, regardless of her long history of corruption, warmongering, disenfranchisement and imprisonment of minority communities.

One may wonder at the fate of an identity-based, feel-good campaign like “We the people” if Clinton had won the election instead of Trump. Would Shephard Fairey and the Amplifier Foundation protest at a Clinton inauguration with portraits of minorities? Would they propagate an image of a Muslim woman draped in an American flag or one of a Native American, two of the five images in “We the people”, as Clinton continued to bomb Muslim countries (e.g. Iraq, Libya) killing and maiming scores of Muslim women, and remained silent about projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, which destroy the environment and enrich her corporate benefactors? Or would they have celebrated another meaningless “achievement” in the long checklist of liberal identity politics, and remained complicitly silent to the crimes of empire with a feminine face?

The smokescreen of identity politics is but one of many liberal policies that are to blame for the ascension of right-wing neo-fascism and a xenophobic, misogynist demagogue like Donald Trump. Their failure proves that effective resistance and protest should be issue-based and targeted at undermining oppressive systems of the state, not limited to a candidate or to identity. Artists and media with a radical agenda must defy the establishment and question its very legitimacy, i.e. work outside the defined and convenient confines of the duopoly and its divisive tactics. We the people must disobey, and unite around the goal of directly confronting all manifestations of capitalism and imperialism if there is hope in combatting climate change, perpetual war, inequality and injustice.

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Yoav Litvin is a Doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience.  

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