The case I’m most interested in exploring is the “OBEY” campaign. In 1989, Shepard Fairey, a RISD graduate, designed a sticker featuring an illustration of wrestler Andre the Giant, first with the slogan “ANDRE THE GIANT HAS A POSSE 7′ 4″, 520 lb” and soon transforming to a design with just his face and the bold text “OBEY.” The stickers experienced initial popularity among the skater subculture in Providence, but they were quickly plastered all over urban centers of the East Coast and exposed to the general public. The two designs can be seen below:
Although the stickers have a very bold and provocative look, Fairey claims on his website that the designs really don’t mean anything, and that the campaign was designed to be an experiment in phenomenology. He describes the concept of phenomenology as an attempt “to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.” Because the public is so inundated with advertisements and other media, we have become desensitized, passive perceivers of it, and the OBEY stickers are simply meant to incite people to notice (and become more aware of their surroundings) and to extrapolate their own meaning (to stimulate reaction to those surroundings and think more deeply about them). Although there are an infinite number of reactions, a lot of people (and reasonably so, I would say) see the stickers as being anti-establishment because of the rhetoric, general look and feel, and their propaganda-esque distribution, and may become fearful or paranoid of subversive activity in their area. Despite the fact that Fairey insists that this is solely a reflection of the individual’s subconscious and not of the sticker itself, I think this is one of the many ethical questions raised by this case. I’ll outline the major points of ethical controversy I see in this case below, some of which are more narrow and some of which are more broad:
1. Is this sticker campaign, as it’s defined as an experiment in phenomenology, an ethical mission? Is it Fairey’s attempt to get us to recognize the danger of media desensitization and the value of being aware and analytical about your environment?
2. Is it fair to deny responsibility for any emotions people derive from the sticker? If it has the potential to incite paranoia or anxiety in people, does Fairey really have no responsibility for creating that, since he claims it’s just entirely their subjective reaction? In other words, do artists have a responsibility for the reaction inspired in their audience?
3. Is it ethical to conduct a social experiment in which people can neither consent nor refuse to participate?
4. Does this sticker campaign constitute “street art” or “graffiti?” In other words, does is it an artistic endeavor that enriches its platform, or is it essentially a glorified act of vandalism that violates public and private property?
Anyways, I really like this case because I think there’s a lot of ethical gray-area that would be really cool to research, analyze, and make judgments about. I would love to hear what any of you guys think about other potential ethical dilemmas you see that would be interesting to explore, or just what your thoughts are in general.
Here are some references I’ve found so far, using databases like WorldCat and GoogleScholar we went over in class, and organized using RefWorks:
Alison Young. (2013). Street art, public city. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis. MacGillivray, Laurie, Curwen,Margaret Sauceda,. (2007). Tagging as a social literacy practice. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(5), 354-369. White, R. (2000). Graffiti, crime prevention & (and) cultural space. Current Issues Crim.just., 12, 253.