CALEB NEELON speaks on why prosecuting Shepard Fairey is bad for Boston

April 08 2009 . 08:18pm

Hi folks. I’m taking another moment on my soapbox here. This time, I’d like to talk about the Boston trial of Shepard Fairey, and why it is bad for Boston, regardless of whether you hate or love him and his work.

This was adapted from a talk that I gave at the Boston ICA on April 4. A large number of people there asked me to publish it or make it somehow available, so as it is a current event, I’m putting on my site so as to make it available quickly.

I was supposed to give attendees of the talk a basic introduction to Shepard Fairey, but took a detour. We have an unusual circumstance. I want to talk about Shepard Fairey and your money; and to start, I’d like to show you a small bit of a poem by Walt Whitman. Just what you expected in a talk about Shepard Fairey, right? Don’t worry, it’s short.

I do not ask who you are, that is not important to me, 
You can do nothing and be nothing but what I will infold you.

To cotton-field drudge or cleaner of privies I lean, 
On his right cheek I put the family kiss, 
And in my soul I swear I never will deny him.

On women fit for conception I start bigger and nimbler babes. 
(This day I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.)

To any one dying, thither I speed and twist the knob of the door. 
Turn the bed-clothes toward the foot of the bed, 
Let the physician and the priest go home.

That was a tiny section from Walt Whitman’s famous epic poem, Song of Myself, which was published in his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. In 1882, on its publication, Boston authorities banned the book for indecency. They singled out the section I just quoted, presumably because of its veiled references to kissing a dude. Boston authorities would go on to ban Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891. In the 20th Century, Boston authorities would go on to ban, or do their best to ban, works by H.L. Mencken, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and even Voltaire’s Candide, nearly two hundred years after its publication. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was removed, successfully, as well.

These books were all banned because they were in violation of local law. Their works were removed from shelves because they were illegal.

Yet when you all were in grade school, you probably read some of these works in English class. What was once illegal and obscene became something teenagers have to write a book reports on.

So why am I giving you this little American Literature lesson? Because there’s an elephant in the room today: Shepard Fairey will on April 14 again appear in Boston court on vandalism charges for works he allegedly installed in Boston streets. While here preparing for his show here inside the walls of the ICA, he did work in a number of Boston locations, including a banner hanging on City Hall, and many less high-profile spaces.

After posing with none other than Boston Mayor Tom Menino under his banner at City Hall, at the public opening of this show, Shepard was arrested on his way into the building. A small number of Boston police, at the urging of a small activist group from Boston’s wealthiest neighborhood, dug up an eight year old bench warrant – given for putting a sticker on a sign pole – tailed him, and moved in. Shepard was made to fly back from his Los Angeles home to face an arraignment a week later. He is charged with 29 felony counts.

29 felony counts.

Neither Whitman, Hemingway, Hardy, or Remarque ever felt Boston police handcuffs. They never faced a penalty of decades of jail time. Shepard has, and does, here and today, this very month, right here in our own home town, while his portraits of the sitting United States President loom next to those of our very own nation’s founding fathers in the Smithsonian and upstairs here at the Boston ICA. It’s a lot more comfortable to talk about the prosecution of artists when it happened in Whitman’s time, but here we are.

29 felony counts.

I mention this today because, at least in my original audience at the Boston ICA, you are all here as art and design professionals and fans of art in our city. We’re here because this is our passion, but just as important, our livelihood. We make our money through art and design. And we all know what each of us are up against in Boston. We all know the pay cut that each of us takes to stay here for reasons of loyalty to family or birthplace. And we as a group need to spread the word to all who will hear it that this arrest is destructive to the Massachusetts creative economy.

The specifics of Shepard Fairey’s case, what he did, and even what we think of him and his work on an individual basis – these are all irrelevant. Whether you adore his work or feel it is overexposed, plagiarized hipster wallpaper is beside the point. I dislike several things he’s done, and several of my closest artist friends abhor the guy. But like or hate, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that his arrest is taking money away from Boston. What is relevant is the effect that his arrest and gratuitous prosecution has on every creative professional here by only reinforcing Boston’s reputation as a terrible place to do creative business. What matters is the reputation of our city as an artistic base, because reputation, writ large, is the soil in which our collective businesses grow.

When an institution like the ICA hosts a major show by the most famous artist of the moment at the height of his fame; the eyes of the creative world settle on Boston to gauge if it is where they wish to invest. Shows like this are job interviews for the city. They are Boston’s chance to show the world what it is are made of, while the world’s eyes have settled on it while we play host to a successful, known quantity. Shepard’s opening at the Boston ICA brought substantial numbers of visitors of substantial wealth and influence to town – just in my own small personal circle, I entertained visitors from California, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Mississippi, Germany, and Turkey, all of whom were well-to-do people who had traveled to Boston specifically for the show, stayed in Boston hotels, shopped at Boston shops, and ate at Boston restaurants. I even sold a few of my own paintings. These are all taxable dollars coming into our economy, but the legal action taken against Shepard sent every one of these well-to-do, well-connected visitors home shaking their heads at what a culturally backward city Boston is. And you can bet that they will tell their well-to-do, well-connected friends as well.

I can cheerlead for my hometown until my face is blue, but outside investment is fickle and squeamish and does not like uncertainty. And Shepard’s arrest gave every brand director, location scout, art collector, ad buyer, and trend spotter reason to be wary of doing business in our city – all the while snickering into their hand and shaking their heads at us. People laugh at Boston for being a city of culturally clueless Puritans, and because of that, business that depends on an audience to the contrary, avoids Boston. This arrest has renewed our subscription to this unfortunate perception.

History invariably excoriates those who prosecute art of any stripe. There is no escape from history’s mockery. There’s no way around it. History will laugh at us. The details of present – day illegality simply dissolve in the mocking laughter of years down the line.

But what do last are the black eyes on the local creative economy. What lasts is the cloud of hostile uncertainty that any business doing anything creative must operate within in Boston. What lasts is a stench of clueless Puritanism that repels outside investment in our creative businesses. What lasts is the long trail left by the motivated and creative people – young adults raised and educated here with the investment of our own tax dollars – who move away, because making a living in the creative fields in this town is revealed to be a false promise.

This is about money – but it isn’t about money we in Boston have, or that others in Boston have that we do not. This is about money that passes Boston by on its way to a better home.

Here’s a specific example of how: Immediately after his show opening at the Boston ICA, Shepard appeared in Boston court and returned to Los Angeles for one week until he needed to return to Boston for his arraignment. During that week in Los Angeles, Shepard executed a monumental mural on the side of a theater; a mural featuring Lance Armstrong the great cyclist (and well-respected art collector, I might add) in a project developed by the Nike corporation and Lance’s cancer research and awareness foundation Livestrong, of those ubiquitous bracelets. It was a massive media event, and a great thing for all parties, with lots of money moving around.

This is how Los Angeles incorporates an artist like Shepard into its economy when it has one week to do so. But if we in Boston were as forward-thinking, every single dollar that moved around in Los Angeles could have been doing so in Boston. You may not know this, but Boston is actually one of the biggest footwear hubs in the world, with Reebok, Converse, Clarks, Puma, New Balance, and Saucony all calling eastern Massachusetts home, at least for their United States headquarters. Nike’s role and the visibility they gained could have been one of theirs. And cancer research? Come on. On one side of the Charles, there’s Dana Farber and MGH, among dozens, and on the other, there’s Novartis and so many biotech giants operating so far outside of my sphere of knowledge that I can’t even pretend to know their areas of research. But I do know that we in Boston sure as heck could have put the world’s most famous artist of the moment to better civic and commercial use than adding to the B.O. stink in our holding cells. Did you know Shepard is a diabetic? Well, he is. Could we maybe have teased out a connection there to create a project with any of those health care giants to an end that would be more productive to our local economy instead of cuffing Shepard? I’m just brainstorming here, but I bet we could have.

Instead, we have 29 felony charges. Those 29 felony charges are Shepard’s to bear and to deal with, and he will. He has good counsel and plenty of money to address those with. But what begins as an attempt to make an example of Shepard as a vandal who met the law only makes an example of Boston as a city to avoid when investing any culture dollar.

Those charges against Shepard are what keep investors in our businesses – people who we will never meet, people far from Boston – renewing their negative impression of our city. It’s those charges’ black eyes that we all in this room must live with and do business around. And it’s the mockery of students future that we all live in; no different than that with which we look back on in Boston’s dealings with Whitman and the artists that followed.

For remember, Whitman’s work, and that poem in particular – was illegal by the letter of Boston law as well.

Caleb Neelon

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