In high school, I was that girl with oil paint smeared on her clothes and hands and charcoal dust on her face, who spent her free periods during the day in her beloved studio among easels and cans of turpentine. I was the girl who was far more interested in capturing like-nesses of her classmates than copying notes from the board.
I was artsy. That was my image. And I stuck to it.
Sure, there were other “artsy” kids, who wore “hip” clothes, and listened to “cool” music, and even had decent portfolios to back themselves up. But they were posers. I was the real deal.
That’s what I told myself anyway. I mean, my art teachers were always impressed at my ability to crank out projects like fighter planes during World War II, and even my doodles induced a wave of “how do you do that?” from my peers.
But as the end of senior year approached, I began to wonder if it was me who was the poser. Suddenly ‘Caroline Fenlin —that artsy blonde girl’ faced an identity crisis. I began to wonder if I even cared about art that much — was this just an image after all? It dawned on me that I really wasn’t all that special. I was no different than the millions of indie kids — hipsters even — who were simply solidifying their status as a walking stereotype by trying to be different. Just because I liked art didn’t mean I had to conform to the certain image of someone trying to resist conformity. If it sounds confusing, it’s probably because it is.
With the same scrutinizing eye that I began to lay upon myself, I took a look at some of my favorite artists.
Maybe you’ve heard of Shepard Fairey. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, he is best known for his design of the Obama ’08 ‘Hope’ poster and is head of OBEY Propaganda, a clothing line that I confess I have a liking for. The contemporary graphic designer and illustrator, who has been an inspiration to me and many of my “artsy” counterparts, began as a street artist, pasting his stickers to signs and the sides of buildings and slapping his art on skateboards and shirts.
For the most part I’m a fan of Fairey — but not everyone is. He has been accused of cynically turning graffiti culture into a self-promoting ad campaign, appropriating images of other artists without giving due credit, and in turn accusing others for stealing his work.
And while I hate to throw around the term “sell-out” just because Fairey has gained success, I can’t help but see some inconsistency in his ideology. In 2003 he said, “One of my main concepts with the […][Obey] campaign as a whole, was that obedience is the most valuable currency.
People rarely consider how much power they sacrifice by blindly following a self-serving corporation’s marketing agenda, and how their spending habits reflect the direction in which they choose to transfer power.” Yet, he’s forced himself into the mainstream and has his own clothing line. Is he not feeding into the consumerism that he condemns?
And what’s more, his shtick initially seemed to caution against “obeying” power and conforming to society, and then he finds himself a political activist, participating in the presidential election of 2008. While I have nothing against a little activism, it seems that Fairey needs to get his story straight.
As a graphic design student at Penn State, I’m still struggling with my own identity as an aspiring artist, and maybe on a much smaller scale I can relate to Fairey and his image as a contemporary in our consumer based and often superficial society.
Maybe he’s a poser. Maybe I’m a poser. Maybe we both like making things that look cool. And just maybe the art world I love so very much really is full of contradictions, just as most of us are.
Caroline Fenlin is a freshman majoring in graphic design and is a Daily Collegian columnist. Email her at email@example.com