One of the most recognizable views on campus is not a crusty Colonial edifice or even a swathe of moss-cloaked oaks; it is the stark, red and black graphics of a lotus on the face of College Lodge. Charleston native Shepard Fairey installed the Green Power mural on the side of the Calhoun Street residence hall as a part of the Spoleto Festival last spring. The words Green, Energy, Power, and Glory are not overtly political, but undoubtedly opinionated.
Fairey’s most famous works include the Hope poster for
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run and the OBEY campaign, which made the face of Andre the Giant nearly ubiquitous in urban landscapes nationwide. But what do these constant presences mean? And are we, societally, giving them too much power? By asking the question, I fall into Fairey’s goal for the project. “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker,” he wrote in 1990 in a manifesto on his website. He goes on to assert that the “paranoid or conservative viewer” may feel threatened or frustrated by the image, while others seek the sticker “merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging.”
This probing of public reaction is characteristic of street art which is, by nature, public. Successful pieces illuminate social tensions and inertial trends. Shepard Fairey has certainly used his platform to highlight political opinions. On another page of his website, Fairey is quoted as saying that the copyright battle over the photo which spawned the Hope image “obscure[d] the real intent of why I made the poster, which was to help Barack Obama become President.”
Celebrities advocating political agendas is not novel. In 1941, famed aviator Charles Lindberg delivered a speech demanding that “the future of America” not “be tied to these eternal wars in Europe.” His words were consistent with a wave of popularized isolationism that had prevailed throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. Several decades later, bombshell actress Brigitte Bardot made headlines for her vigorous support of animal rights. More recently, she has made headlines for endorsing Marine Le Pen, France’s right-wing presidential hopeful. Barbra Streisand garnered attention last January for writing an impassioned op-ed in defense of the Affordable Care Act. Winner of this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar Patricia Arquette used her time at the microphone to plug equal pay for women. These actresses and actors, TV personalities and Internet sensations are equally or more omnipresent on our devices and magazine covers as street art is in our cities. To what end?
One question to ask is whether it is appropriate for celebrities to use their wide exposure to promote a political agenda. Certainly, a strong argument exists that these individuals should use their privileged position for good. And they do have a right to espouse their views, like any other citizen. The hitch is that we frequently weigh their words in the same way we would a professor or politician. Are we all equal when it comes to expressing an opinion?
Since 1984, the principle of Chevron, or administrative, deference has dominated the function of the federal government. The idea stipulates that in most cases, courts, legislators, and executives must defer to the expertise of a bureaucrat or independent worker. I wonder if we have similarly deferred to celebrities. We live in a world of constant skimming. Bullet points and clickbait have encroached on long-form material. Very few of us, I hazard to guess, are experts in the political issues we claim or aspire to care about. If I am right and this is true, it makes perfect sense that we would defer to figures who have been given authority by virtue of their materialistic success.