National Portrait Gallery responds
A while back I raised some issues concerning the acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery of the iconic Shepard Fairey portrait of President Obama. Today I received a response from the NPG:
Visual appropriation, a technique for adapting borrowed imagery which Shepard Fairey admits to using, has a long, time-honored tradition. Religious and political graphics have especially relied over the centuries on this sort of repetition. James Montgomery Flagg’s famous “I want you for the U. S. Army,” recruiting poster, for example, was “borrowed” without credit from British artist Alfred Leete’s image of a pointing-finger Lord Kitchener. Appropriation became a common tool of fine art in the 1960s in the hands of Andy Warhol and various pop artists. Fairey’s description for this approach is ““hijacking something with cultural relevance and switching it up.” Of course, wholesale borrowing can violate copyright issues legally and ethically if you are not “switching it up.” But in the case of Fairey’s portrait of Obama, his adaptation and translation of the face into something quite different falls squarely into the “fair use” category.Therefore, when I was told a few years ago that in order to be considered for acquisition by the NPG, a contemporary portrait had to be done from the live subject, that was wrong.
It is also true that the Portrait Gallery staff values pictures “from life” that represent an artist’s direct interpretation of a known subject. But there are exceptions to that standard. The engravers of George Washington’s day copied paintings for their prints; Currier and Ives’ political cartoons were based on photographic faces; designers of movie posters and political graphics typically adapt film stills and photographs. We consider all these forms valid, authentic expressions produced during the sitter’s lifetime and rich with biographical information.
I thank the NPG for their response, but on a separate issue, I still think that Garcia's photo should accompany the Fairey artwork and that the wall plaque should detail the entire story for future generations.