Monday, February 07, 2011


Illustrator Bernie Fuchs standing behind President Kennedy at the White House

Once upon a time, kings and pharaohs sought the most talented artists in the land to serve as court painters. In an era before photography (and often before literacy) royal patrons of the arts knew they would be remembered by the images of their accomplishments.

Akhenaten's distinctive face was immortalized by his royal artists

Goya, Van Eyck, Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, Holbein and others found steady employment as court painters; they received a regular salary, ate well, and got to live in nicer surroundings than their peers in the art guild. Sometimes they went beyond capturing the face of the king to putting an aesthetic face on the entire kingdom.

But gradually emperors stopped sponsoring artists. The Medici Popes and Dukes who had once taken such pride in being represented by brilliant artists-- Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Fra Angelico-- ended their patronage. Corporations emerged as the new centers of economic power and became the primary sponsors of art. The types of artists who once painted military victories for nobles found work painting for shampoo companies and car manufacturers.

Even though the era of court painters is over, we still see occasional flashes where an artist's strong voice helps articulate the identity of a leader or the style of the kingdom.

Dwight Eisenhower's presidency (1952-1960) was a conservative, traditional period so it was natural that his most iconic portrait was captured by Norman Rockwell-- an artist whose work embodied the traditional American values of the first half of the 20th century.

There is no better known painting of Eisenhower than this image from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

But as John Kennedy became president in 1961, a warm spring thaw was spreading across the country. The culture began an exciting period of innovation and experimentation.

Note the dramatic contrast between Rockwell's portrait of Eisenhower and Bernie Fuchs' iconic portraits of Kennedy just a few years later:

Fuchs' dynamic images of Kennedy were warmly embraced by the Kennedy clan. The painting of Kennedy on his boat (above) hangs today in the home of Kennedy's sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Kennedy's counselor and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, kept another painting by Fuchs on the wall of his office until the day he died, a few months ago. And when Sotheby's auctioned off the personal possessions of Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis, there were two Fuchs images among them. Accurately or not, Fuchs' artistic perspective was the way many in Camelot chose to perceive their era.

Kennedy posing for Fuchs in the oval office, 1962

Fuchs in the White House rose garden behind JFK and RFK

A few years later when Fuchs returned to the White House to paint President Lyndon Johnson's portrait, he found the personality of the government had changed sharply. The artistic style which was so appropriate for Kennedy was not of interest to Johnson.

Fuchs delivering his portrait of Lyndon Johnson in the oval office

Today it is difficult to imagine a leader anywhere who would turn to the arts to help establish their image . The triumph of video and the changed receptivity of the public are obviously important reasons for this transformation (although the lowered taste of rulers and the reduced ambitions of artists probably have something to do with it).

For a sense of just how far presidential portraits have sunk in our era, consider this famous portrait of Barack Obama being applauded by trained seals:

The artist Shepard Fairey lifted his image from a copyrighted news photograph. When confronted with his theft, Fairey admitted that he had lied to the court and tried to destroy the evidence. Nevertheless, the fawning art critic and "postmodern poet" Peter Schjeldahl wrote an embarrassing review for the New Yorker in which he called Fairey's poster "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'"

In an era where Photoshop substitutes for technical skill and expropriation substitutes for imagination, perhaps it is fitting that the era of court painters is behind us.


Max West said...

To be fair, Peter Hurd did a good portrait of LBJ. Hurd was quite talented himself, being mentored by N.C. Wyeth and friends with his son, Andrew.

Donald Pittenger said...

Wow ... where did those Fuchs photos come from? Okay, the Court Photographer, I would suppose. But they were either archived or copies in the hands of the Fuchs family or that little museum in his home town.

Now that you've done Fawcett his due, can a Fuchs biography be in the works (even more stuff than the Illustration Mag issue a few years ago)? I hope so.

j. w. bjerk said...

Faily is probably not worthy to tie Fuch's shoes, but his traced portrait of Obama does stand out among the usually even lamer and tamer design and art of political campaigns for the past few decades.

Jesse Hamm said...

Reminds me of this discussion about whether an off-kilter portrait of California governor Jerry Brown should be replaced. (The portrait, painted by Don Bachardy, was apparently intended to be bold and modern, but Bachardy lacks the power of artists like Alice Neel or Philip Burke, whose work is in a similar vein, and it ends up looking sloppy and childish.)

I'd love to see current politicians painted by artists who really know what they're doing. The fact that Phil Hale was chosen to paint Tony Blair is an encouraging sign (even if he did try to make Blair look like Dracula).

Amy June Bates said...

Phil Hales' portrait of Tony Blair a few years ago felt like it was picking up Fuch's thread a bit. But that is very different than the comprehensive Camelot feel. The great man at work and at play. I think the sailing painting makes a great contrasting image to the usual heaviness of the Presidency.

David Apatoff said...

Max West-- I agree that the Hurd portrait was probably closer to LBJ's personal style than Fuchs' work (although that didn't stop Johnson from dismissing it as the ugliest thing he'd ever seen). After Kennedy brought taste and culture and class to the White House (Robert Frost, Pablo Cassals) Johnson, to the extent he thought about art at all, pretty much returned to cowboy art as the basic US aesthetic.

Donald Pittenger-- Thanks, I would love to do a book on Fuchs someday. He had one heck of a career.

J.W. Bjerk-- I agree Fairey's design stands out; it is a bold combination of somebody else's photograph with an old socialist realist formula. And it certainly seems to have struck a chord with the public. Perhaps I am selling him short: I don't think Fairey is particularly talented but perhaps simple minded mechanical "sampling" of other people's work is indeed representative of the highest aesthetic of our era.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- thanks, I wasn't familiar with the controversy over the Brown portrait.

Jesse Hamm and Amy June Bates-- I don't know who picked Phi Hale for the Tony Blair portrait, but it was quite a risk and I think it worked out extremely well.

अर्जुन said...

(although the lowered taste of rulers and the reduced ambitions of artists probably have something to do with it)

Nothin' but champagne!

for those that need the info~ A creepy gift for a creepy friend.

John Stone said...

Cool thanks for introducing me to Bernie Fuch's work. I love the sailboat piece.

Stupidboy said...

Fairey, who appears to be wearing his little brother's suit, looks appropriately smug.
As there's no shortage of talented artists, do today's politicians deserve the portraits they get?

Michael Fraley said...

The most maddening thing about the Fairey lawsuit to me is that when it was all said and done, Fairey and the Associated Press had become business partners. Yes, that ensures that the AP gets a piece of the financial pie from Fairey's work, but I think it sends a bad message - that, depending on who you are, plagiarism will be endlessly rewarded.

Nell Minow said...

Do you remember who Jimmy Carter chose to do his official portrait? Ansel Adams. I remember a review at the time said that Adams shot Carter as though he was a mountain range. Every atom was in perfect focus, but as a portrait it lacked warmth, humanity, and a point of view. If he insisted on a photograph, I would like to have seen a portrait of Carter by Karsh or Eisenstadt.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that is Ike's best portrait at all. His left eye (on viewer's right) is shifted left, creating a disturbingly wide gap between the eyes (which appear to be a little small). Rockwell's portrait of Nixon is far better.

Lars said...

I love this blog and think that Fairey is very over rated but some of you sound like the people that said Warhol was a joke and nothing would come of him. Now his prints can go for millions. Times change and unfortunately technical ability and talent is not enough, part of it is luck and the cultural zeitgeist. At this moment in time Fairey has captured the zeitgeist.

Just because Fairey's image is simple does not mean that its not effective, people have a very emotional response to that image good or bad (as this blog post shows). Just the style and colors mean something to people and inspire them. The great thing about art is that is subjective and no two people see things the same way.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...

Maureen Dowd told a story on CSPAN a few years ago about her father who knew both Nixon and Kennedy in the late 50s in congress. The gist was that Nixon was a really nice guy who was very welcoming, and Kennedy was a complete jerk who was nasty to underlings. Maybe it was the pain pills. (And Maureen Down isn't exactly the kind of deep thinker who would reflexively say bad things about a handsome democrat.)

Those Fuchs pix are great. But they are way too dynamic and expressive to evoke the dignity of the highest office in the land. They say too much and with too much truth. So, in a sense, they are precursors to what happened later to the very idea of dignity.

Ah, Fairey's New Man Graphics... Hope on a Socialist rope... how it evokes those grand old dreams of a totalitarian fantasy state to shepherd the bleating flock unscathed through life, just like that dreamy ol' Soviet Union did... *swoon*

(Mantra of the online lefty: I will not learn the lessons of history. I will not learn the lessons of history. I will not... etc.)


It wasn't Fairey who plagiarized the photo... celeb photos just scoop up other people's light rays. Its no different than scooping up dirt from somebody else's yard. It was Associated Press who plagiarized Obama's face, and then had the nuts to claim they owned it. And the lawyers to get it done. And the media megaphone to make it all seem like business as usual... stealing the light rays coming off other people's faces. Aperture Vultures with briefcases.

Peter Hurd's portrait of LBJ was atrocious, imo. Stiff junk.

kev ferrara said...

(Forgive my tendency to problematize the dialogue. I do live in a postmodern zeitgeist, and one must obey the zeitgeist.)


Laurence John said...

i hadn't heard any of the story behind the Obama image until now.
i assumed it was photo-shopped anonymously by a sarcastic graphic designer.

Matthew Harwood said...

In portraits of politicians, how do you differentiate between propaganda and truth?

Jesse Hamm said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say that "celeb photos just scoop up other people's light rays," but I do think the Fairey portrait retains nothing that should be credited to the photographer. The picture that survives in Fairey's painting shows none of the creative choices that make up the photographer's art -- a unique angle, cropping/composition, original subject matter, lens & film stock, distinctive lighting. It's little more than a mug shot, and a photographer claiming ownership of its basic look would be like a writer claiming ownership of the phrase,"Obama for President."

It's funny that Johnson didn't care for Fuchs's portrayal, since that portrait was
chosen to represent him at the National Archives website
-- where they claim it's evidence of his warm character!

Rockwell's Eisenhower does look kind of froggy. Made me curious, so I tried comparing it with a similar photo (which I flopped to match the pose). Here are the results. It's not a totally fair comparison, since the photo isn't from exactly the same angle, but it does appear that Rockwell placed the eyes too far apart. Based on the distance between Ike's pupils in the photo, I 'shopped a "corrected" version (bottom).

Lastly, here's a funny comparison of Kim Jong-il with one of his portraits. It appears the artist added several inches to his height...

Tom said...

Hi David
I posted this on your last thread, and I am reposting it because it was the last response and you may not have seen it. But after your war writing and the arts I think it gives great insight into the true power of art.

Tom said...
Hi David
Just read your account of Ivor Hele in New Guinea. You have to watch this You Tube video by a woman reading from Jacques Lusseyran’s “Poetry in Buchenwald ‘ which is one essay in a collection of essays in his book “Against the Pollution of the I”. As you wrote about Hele, “Yet, Hele's experience shows how important and meaningful art can be to human life.”

And here is a quote from Lussyeran. “No poetry was not simply “literature.” It did not belong to the world of books. It was not made just for those who read. “
But watch the You Tube video, profoundly moving and in a way very close to Hele’s experience in New Guinea.

From such an experience I can better understand why he wrote in is other book "And there was Light"
"And last of all, was it Buchenwald, or was it the everyday world, what we call the normal life, which was topsy-turvy?

An old peasant from the Anjou whom I had just met-how strange that he was born only six miles from Juvardeil- insisted that it was the everyday world which was askew. He was convinced of it."

2/04/2011 12:24 AM

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- you must substitute clairvoyance for google; there is just no way any search based on the five known senses could have produced that picture. It is hideous, true, but I suspect from the inscription that it was one of those amateur efforts painted as a gift in his early years.

John Stone-- glad you like it; keeping checking out Fuchs' work, there's a lot more to see.

Stupidboy-- that's a hilarious collection of awful portraits. They make Fairey look pretty good by comparison.

David Apatoff said...

Michael Fraley-- I am guessing that AP charged Fairey a decent fee to absolve him from plagiarism and legitimize his artwork once again. I don't think "quality" or "originality" were of any concern.

Nell MInow-- thanks.

Etc, etc-- there may well be a better portrait of Ike (although I can't think of one off hand). My point was rather that the Rockwell picture resonated with a huge audience, both because it was on the Saturday Evening Post (they reproduced copies for distribution) and because Rockwell's avuncular, genial image resonated with people's concept of Ike. It captured how people thought of him.

David Apatoff said...

Lars wrote: "some of you sound like the people that said Warhol was a joke and nothing would come of him."

I am not a big fan of Warhol's illustrations and I was not overly impressed with what he later did as a "fine" artist, but my view has been enriched by comments on earlier posts, particularly from अर्जुन and Ben, who introduced me to the most illuminating "Songs for Drella." I think their song about "the style it takes" sums up Warhol's art beautifully:

Kev Ferrara-- there is a long history of leaders who love humanity in the abstract being beastly to individual humans. At the same time, people who are sour and negative about humanity in general often treat individual people with great love and respect. (Justice Douglas was supposed to be an arrogant bastard while Justice Scalia is supposed to be warm and engaging). But there is a ton of evidence that Kennedy was a fun, people-loving, upbeat person. Fuchs certainly said that Kennedy was very kind to him, appreciative of his art, and interested in him personally.

Also, I was no fan of Hurd's stolid portrait of LBJ, but I think it might have been closer to LBJ's sttyle than Fuchs'fancy dancing.

Finally, did you just reject all of photography as art?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I fear that the petty theft behind the Obama poster is all too common in todays artistic ethos. I recently helped judge a Society of Illustrators student competition and was dismayed by the new casual acceptance of image appropriation.

Matthew Harwood-- that is an excellent question, over which many people far more qualified than I have struggled. Yeats said that we make propaganda out of our arguments with the world, but we make art out of our arguments with ourselves. I suspect a lot depends on your political vantage point. Me, I think the line between propaganda and art is closer to a gas than a solid.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm-- pretty fancy handiwork on that 'shopped Rockwell. And I love the Kim Jong-il. But as for the Johnson painting, the sketch you spotted at the LBJ library is not the finished painting that Fuchs was showing LBJ in the photograph. LBJ donate that one to the Women's National Democratic Club. (There was speculation that LBJ hated it because it showed him holding his glasses in his hand in an era when LBJ was still sensitive about wearing glasses.

Tom-- what a truly inspiring video, and yes yes yes, that is what poetry and even art can be (although no one wants to go through what it takes to find that much meaning in poetry or art). Thanks for sharing it with us.

kev ferrara said...

Agree that Fuchs was too avante garde for LBJ, who would have been well served by Amos Sewell as his portraitist. Or Jack Davis. (Though, Rockwell did a nice job on him, I think. Rockwell did other portraits of Ike too.)

Love that Yeats quote.

The problem with any image of a politician is that they are living symbols of their ideas. To burnish the image is to burnish the idea. To tarnish the symbol is to tarnish the idea. And the grit of reality is always a tarnish, which is why LBJ was so burdened by JFK's shadow... because he was the kind of guy who Amos Sewell and Jack Davis might draw.

The Fairey Graphic Design is beyond burnishing, elevating Obama to the level of platonic abstraction... which is exactly how millions of confused kids voting for the first time saw him. As the 13th street irregulars used to say, "it is no accident."

(Btw, I'm sure JFK was charming, and Nixon was an anti-semite, racist paranoid, but I couldn't resist retelling that Dowd anecdote for the sake of mischief.)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara and Jesse Hamm-- am I correct that the two of you are rejecting some of the fundamental tenets of photography as copyrightable property (and perhaps as an art form)?

Kev wrote: "celeb photos just scoop up other people's light rays. Its no different than scooping up dirt from somebody else's yard. It was Associated Press who plagiarized Obama's face, and then had the nuts to claim they owned it. And the lawyers to get it done."

Jesse wrote: "I do think the Fairey portrait retains nothing that should be credited to the photographer."

It is indisputable that the free market, in arm's length transactions, draws huge distinctions between different collections of "light rays." Not just Annie Liebovitz but Ron Galella too makes fortunes capturing celeb images while other papparazi have trouble earning a subsistence level income. As long as the market draws those kinds of distinctions between photographs, you can bet that copyright lawyers and art critics will respect and follow the money.

Matthew Harwood said...

David Apatoff - I suspect a lot depends on your political vantage point.

Personally, I see political systems as a necessary evil and view Politians like circus clowns - entertaining from a distance but creepy up close. In that light, caricature might be the most honest way of artistically depicting our public servants. At least then we know the vantage point of the artist.

Jesse Hamm said...

David -- I believe photography is a copyrightable artform, insofar as it entails creative choices. So, if the photographer distinguishes a work through choice of subject matter, or camera angle, or lighting, or means of development, or the moment captured, etc, then those distinctives should qualify the work as copyrightable. But if we're talking about a plain vanilla shot of a common subject, from a common angle in indifferent lighting, I think the copyrights should lessen or disappear. To return to my writer analogy: somebody was the first person ever to use the phrase "Obama for President," but that person can't go around demanding royalties from anyone who uses that phrase. Like Garcia's Obama photo, it lacks copyrightable distinction.

Anonymous said...

Just a wee spot of trivia. Apparently JFK used to botton up the bottom button of his suit coat to help hide the form of his back brace.

kev ferrara said...

Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in 1956. Yogi Berra was the catcher. Yogi Berra is a footnote to the event. He happened to be the catcher. He called a few pitches that on any other day, with any other pitcher, may have hit the backstop or flown over the bleacher seats. But on that day, Don Larsen turned it on. The event is called Don Larsen’s perfect game for good reason.

Take away the already famous faces from Liebowitz and Galella, take away the charismatic personalities willing to turn on the charm -– those known quantities which sell paper that would otherwise be blank to the starstruck, (who also would otherwise be blank) -- and what do you have? You have two photographers who are equivalent to several million others with comperable equipment and studio set-ups.

Look at any sourcebook for photographers and all you see are stars, stars, stars, some through fish eye lenses, some a little bit nude, in a bare room, with a lit cigar, in a “candid” street shot… stars stars stars. If I told you any one of them were by Liebowitz, you would believe me. “Creativity” is a minimal factor. The main issue is access to charismatic subjects.

Ever seen an uninteresting photograph of Keith Richards’ face?

So, it seems to me, a person who’s face is providing the charisma of the work should have more than equal rights to the picture, just as a pitcher of a perfect game is more responsible for the achievement than the catcher.

If we don’t own our own faces, something is wrong with the law. At least Fairey added abstraction into the mix, in the process changing what the portrait expressed.

Anonymous said...

But as John Kennedy became president in 1961, a warm spring thaw was spreading across the country. The culture began an exciting period of innovation and experimentation.

Are you suggesting this was some sort of micro-renaissance, complete with advancement in the arts and Kennedy in the role of patron?

StimmeDesHerzens said...

The portrait of Mr Obama you have featured in this entry (what a scurrilous story!) is at least a tad better than some of the other artworks depicting the president that you have featured--I remember one in particular, I think it was an animation. or done with fruit, or both?

Anonymous said...

Great article again...Fuchs has always ruled...but I have to differ with you (a first!) on Fairey. I thought the portrait made sense. You talked about artists being of their time, their era, their subject...and this modern version of a portrait fits this modern president. Now, would I have loved to see someone like Peak, Fuchs, Sharpe, et al, paint Obama? Hell, yes! But I think you are comparing apples and oranges here and I don't see a need to denigrate Fairey to elevate Fuchs...the latter doesn't need it and I don't think the former deserves it.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Anonymous said...

Also, I have to add, Kev...can we please leave the political sarcasm out of this forum? I have to deal with enough of that crap on facebook. Yes, I am a proud lefty (not confused at all), but I don't want to use this forum to denigrate any on the opposing side. So, respectfully...can you leave it out of here? I have admired your critiques and don't want to stop doing so.

Ken Meyer Jr.

Anonymous said...

One last post (I really should read all the way to the bottom before finishing).

Kev, great point on the access to stars being one of the key points to many of these photographers' successes. I do think they must have something else that others do not, but probably not as much as they themselves think they possess.

Ken again

kev ferrara said...

Well, Ken, you are probably one of those people who will need to hear that I voted for Obama (mostly because I liked him personally, and could not bear the idea of Sarah Palin in the White House one heart attack from the presidency.)

I am not a partisan except in the sense that I am against wishful thinking, pandering, dangerous economic ideas, and tolerance of intolerance.

To clarify: I did not mean that 20 year olds voted for Obama because they were confused about what he stood for. I meant 20 year olds are confused as a species. Sorry if that offends.

But let's leave that aside.

Since this blog discusses art, and I like discussing aesthetics, and Shep Fairey's HOPE poster uses (or alludes to) Soviet-style aesthetics...

And since David included the quote about the poster, "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'" And since efficacious means useful... I think I can be forgiven for tying it all together as to why it was useful. (I really don't see how you can get into political aesthetics without talking about the morality of the symbols referenced by the aesthetics.)

Putting aside Obama's formidable oratorical skills, I would venture that tens of thousands of web savvy kids responded to the poster because it was Soviet-ish.

Soviet chic has been a fashion in graphic design for at least a decade. Walking in NYC in the summer, you can even see, now and again, red T-shirts with the soviet flag on it defiantly worn by college kids.

Since the Soviet Union was a horror show of misery, failure, totalitarianism, paranoia, and repression, responsible for tens of millions of needless deaths... a little snark seems warranted.

How many of those first time voters would they have voted for a Soviet America if they could? If the poster was colorful enough, maybe a lot. If it was considered the cool choice, a whole lot more.

But maybe, you say... maybe none of those kids got the reference, and just liked the pretty colors.

Well, I can assure you, Fairey knew the reference. If nobody was going to get the reference, why would he have bothered? Why blow the dog whistle if you don't want to call the hounds?

Anonymous said...

Rather, I do so say, with much aversion to my own temperament, that it is such the case that, in times most recently passed, that in effect, but not so overbearingly, yet occasionally surreptitiously, Fairy's image is in fact a sacrilegious confirmation of modern society's fascination with the most ardent Platonic consternation. And that's not to say anything about Rawlsian masturbatory undulations!


Anonymous said...

Hi David. Another great piece. Thanks. Mrs. F told me it was a good one and of course she's right. Please write a book on Bernie, the world needs (and wants) it.

I have to say that the thread here is precisely why I don't read, write or comment on blogs as a rule... we start with a discussion of art and what it meant and wind up with "Rawlsian mastrubatory undulations".

If my disinterest in this chosen form of communication makes me an ionoclast (or worse), so be it. If anyone want to go out on a limb they might approach the fact Gallup probably ruined the world by asking what people think... now any fool can write whatever they want (and yes I do recognize this as an example)about whatever they want and other people will read it. Many of the writers who stray so far from the chosen subject are operating under the false illusion that people care what they think. Off with their heads, say I.

As for the Obama portrait... do I like it, No. Is it memorable and effective, well yes... it's all part of the current Zeitgeist (as recognized by other writers) and we're stuck with it. You and I would probably rather have had a nice sensitive portrait by any number of talents illustrators working today, but after all Obama wanted to get elected and that's what the world's come to.... I guess that ultimately the 50 years of the decline of western civilization shown here saddens me. The genie's out of the bottle, there will be no going back.

David Apatoff said...

Jesse Hamm and Kev Ferrara-- I sympathize with your effort to distinguish between photographs involving creative choices and those that are merely vanilla shots. I may even agree with your assessment of who contributes genuine talent to a photograph. But I'm afraid you are thinking about copyright like artists rather than lawyers.

We could never build a system that offers predictability and objectivity if we started from the type of subjective distinction you propose. What photographer would ever admit to being in the vanilla category? Judges and legislators (wisely) said, "we are the last people in the world that you want passing judgment on the creativity of a photograph." So they came up with an alternative system of protection based on the choices that people make in the marketplace. They start by presuming protection for virtually everything, vanilla or not, and if a viewer values a photograph enough to want to use it (for example, to make a political poster), the law assumes it is not "vanilla" to that viewer.

Whether the photographer and the viewer value it equally will determine whether a deal is struck. You may not like somebody having the rights to the light rays that bounced off you, but at least this way we avoid the law serving as the arbitrator of the level of "creativity" in ten billion photographs. Now people come to the law only to allege a violation, and if they do, any damages are calculated by external criteria (such as the economic impact on the photographer of the image theft-- if it's truly a vanilla image that nobody else wants, that lowers the damages to the point where nobody bothers to pursue a claim).

But woe unto the dope who steals what would otherwise be a "vanilla" photograph, doesn't ask permission (which probably would have been given for ten cents) and then hits the one in a million jackpot. Now he is establishing the value of the photograph after the fact, rather than before. If Fairey shared your view that it is a fungible, vanilla photograph, he wouldn't have gone to such lengths to lie about it and destroy the evidence.

Laurence John said...

"...and if a viewer values a photograph enough to want to use it (for example, to make a political poster), the law assumes it is not "vanilla" to that viewer."

exactly. the quality of the photo in question has nothing to do with it. swiping a photo without permission to use in your own artwork is a pretty low form of art-making as far as i'm concerned. to do the same for such a high-profile commission is either extremely naive or just stupid.

kev ferrara said...

Mornin' David,

I didn't mean to imply that there should be some judgment of quality -- somehow left up to the law -- to determine whether a photo is vanilla or not.

I simply think that there should be a dual copyright for photos between subject and photographer. And I believe photos should fall into public domain within a very short time, usable as reference for value-added expression...

Considered simply as journalism: Original reporting found in the New York Times on Tuesday is invariably the lead story on CNN Wednesday night. And I doubt Time Warner is paying the New York Times Company a dime.

However, on your other point, I agree that Fairey's stupidity is only matched by his lack of ethics.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it de facto validation to discuss a pop artist like Fairey?

Jesse Hamm said...

Laurence and David -- quality doesn't enter into my definition of what should be copyrightable. Distinctiveness does. Again, who owns the phrase "Obama for President"?

As for building "a system that offers predictability and objectivity," judges often brave the murky waters of subjectivity when deciding infringement cases. "Does 'My Sweet Lord' sound enough (to me) like 'He's So Fine' to award damages?"

Fairey did try to cover his tracks, but trying to torpedo his opponents' case doesn't mean he believed he had infringed on their rights.

अर्जुन said...

Who would have the temerity to steal a ray of light?

Matt Dicke said...

Hey David
Great post and it was cool to see the behind the scenes photos of Bernie at the Whitehouse. You don't happen to have a jpeg of Bernie's LBJ portrait, i am curious to see that.

Also if others are interested in seeing more of Bernie's work I have a great Flickr set with a lot of his work from the 60's ( you might be interested in them for that future book too! :-)

and here are another 2 paintings of kennedy from 65 in look mag

Karl said...

I usually like Fuchs' work but I'm not keen on the romantic aura he's created around Kennedy.He's been sucked into the myth like an idiot and his pictures lack objectivity.
They are a visual equivalent of a puff piece of journalism.
You see the same starry eyed aura on portraits of Hitler from the late 20s.
This kind of image highlights the shallowness and superficiality of most illustrators.

Anonymous said...

Karl you are an asswipe. An artist is an idiot because his art lacks "objectivity?" Go play in the shallow end of the pool.


Matthew Harwood said...

Badava Chat - Thanks to confirm my comment will not accept lives

I couldn't agree more.

kev ferrara said...

Karl, I don't know what you are talking about.

Look at the picture of Kennedy thinking in the dark. That is a work of truth, the difficulty of that job, the isolation, the weight of it all. It is a beautiful symbol of these ideas, as well as a beautifully realized portrait of the man.

Was it the sailing picture that bothered you... that beautiful expression of the freedom and breeze out on the open ocean...

Maybe it was simply this: Kennedy was rich, handsome, smart, powerful, had all the ladies he wanted, had a full family life besides, sailed, appreciated culture, cared about the disenfranchised, was adored by young people... Shall I go on? Is the truth too painful to bear? Or is the only truth you can stand that he was in pain because of his back, a cheater, and out of his league in geopolitics?

The ability to hold opposing thoughts in one's mind without going mad...

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc wrote: "Are you suggesting this was some sort of micro-renaissance, complete with advancement in the arts and Kennedy in the role of patron?"

Well, I'd say that the 1960s were certainly a period of great cultural experimentation, whether that counts as a "micro-renissance" or not. But I intentionally wrote that the thaw was occurring "as" Kennedy was elected, not "after" he was elected. I do think Kennedy was an important catalyst for change; the transition from the oldest president to the youngest president, his great vigor and obvious intellectual curiosity, and his emphasis on stretching to meet high standards of quality (from the creation of an "elite" astronaut corps to creation of "elite" fighters-- the Green Berets-- to the luring of the "Best and the Brightest" into government service, for better or worse) had a significant impact on the culture. And as noted above, Kennedy was a leader with genuine taste, who felt it was important to have Robert Frost at his inauguration and Pablo Cassals performing at the White House. So even if Kennedy wasn't a "patron" in the same sense as the Medicis, commissioning huge quantities of art, I think he did about as much as a president could be expected to do to create a fertile environment. Compare that to the current populist antipathy to anything that smacks of "elitiism" ( elite media, elite universities, Washington elites are all regularly disparaged by people who feel that folksy "common sense" is the best cure for today's problems).

Ken Meyer Jr-- I agree that Fairey is more representative of his time, which seems to mean greater tolerance for "sampling" other people's work, often using mechanical reproduction rather than the hand/eye skill which was traditionally required for good old fashioned plagiarism. It also seems to involve dumbing down themes for a larger audience with shorter attention spans and/or lower literacy rates. I understand that Fairey's image resonated with a huge audience, and I am prepared to accept that my qualms are on the wrong side of history.

Karl- I'm afraid I'm not clear where you're coming from on this. To the best of my knowledge, there really weren't any "starry eyed aura" portraits of Hitler in the 1920s, those didn't start until well into the 1930s, and when they did they were very different from this type of work. Hitler would have hated Fuchs' style (which owes much to those French dogs, Degas and the impressionists) because it was not the kind of socialist realism produced by true German "folk." You say, "This kind of image highlights the shallowness and superficiality of most illustrators" but you don't say how or why. Is it because most illustrators paint like Bernie Fuchs? Is it because most illustrators paint pictures of Kennedy? Is it because most illustrators express an opinion about their subject matter? If it's the third point, your need for "objectivity," that is the most baffling to me. Do you think that the Fuchs treatment of Kennedy is more reverential than adulatory art commissioned from Raphael or Michelangelo by the Medicis? Or was Raphael too "sucked into the myth like an idiot"?

Matthew Harwood said...

"If Joe Kennedy had one area of expertise, it was manipulating the media. Long before spin doctors and political gurus talked of `packaging' Presidential candidates, Joe shaped Jack's image more effectively than any Madison Avenue executive. 'We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes,' Joe said.

"The Sins of the Father" by Ronald Kessler

kev ferrara said...

I don't know David. It seems to me, the current negative sentiment surrounding the word Elite nothing to do with its former reference to high quality, as you seem to be suggesting.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन -- I was surprised to see you citing something as mundane as Madonna's "ray of light" until I followed the link and realized that you were citing something completely different and far weirder. I'm sorry I doubted you. PS-- I hope you caught my shout out for introducing me to Songs for Drella.

Matthew Harwood wrote: "'We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes,' Joe said."

Exactly. Kennedy was the first president of the television era. As a practical matter, TV didn't exist when Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower was elected. By 1960, TV was already imporatnt enough to shape the outcome of the election. Kennedy was wily, and quick to figure out that in the future we would be buying candidates like soap flakes. (The black art of public relations was still in its infancy, and laughably crude by today's standards.)

Fortunately, television has left us with a live record of Kennedy and subsequent presidents. Watch the first presidential debates (televised in the 1960s) or better yet, the footage of Kennedy in spontaneous situations such as press conferences, and I think you'll agree with my description of him. (By the way, compare the serious questions and sharp performances of both Nixon and Kennedy in their presidential debates with the dumbed down, pandering performances of the candidates repeating market tested buzz words in more recent presidential debates, and you'll weep for the fate of civilization).

Kagan M. said...

अर्जुन - yeah, great link!

Nothing else to add. Just lurking. Great post.

Matthew Harwood said...

David Apatoff - TV didn't exist when Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower was elected.

No but RKO studios did and Joe Kennedy owned shares in the 20s and 30s. Joe was involved in the behind the scenes making of Hollywood's Golden Age that could transform an Archibald Leach into a Cary Grant. RFK's father used that knowledge (and every other political trick including graft) to get his son elected to office. What I wonder about John Kennedy is what part of our perception of him is Archibald Leach (authentic)and what is Cary Grant (invented by his father.)

kev ferrara said...

Well, now that we're all jumping on the corpse, Profiles in Courage netted Kennedy a Pulitzer Prize... quite a publicity coup to impress the media types and young intellectuals... the first Pulitzer in history awarded for something that was ghostwritten.

And of course, PT-109 was sunk because Kennedy didn't obey his commands. Later there were songs written to his heroism.

Oh well.

But this is hardly the start of PR campaigns. Nazi graphic design, just as a for instance.

And Noam Chomsky has said that the phrase, "Manufacturing Consent" is from some cable sent among British officers in the 1920s, if I'm remembering right.

David Apatoff said...

Kagan M-- Thanks.

Matthew Harwood-- if publicity and image-making techniques were already mature in 1960 because of the movies, it would be all the more bewildering that other candidates didn't understand how to apply those techniques.

Kev Ferrara-- you left out that Kennedy was in a conspiracy with the Pope to subject the American government to the will of the Vatican.

kev ferrara said...

This is getting way OT, but

Sorensen wrote that Kennedy "worked particularly hard and long on the first and last chapters, setting the tone and philosophy of the book" and that "I did a first draft of most chapters." This is not what a "research assistant" does. Sorensen was not credited as either main author or coauthor, (thus was a ghost) but was paid well and got some credit in the introduction.

The PT-109 "kennedy didn't obey order and was going to be courtmarshalled by MacArthur and Nimitz" is a classic conspiracy theory that probably has no basis. I accidentally deleted out the smiley face that indicated it was a joke.

Oh well. ;)

Matthew Harwood said...

I concede the argument that the Kennedy campaign was the first to use Madison Avenue and Hollywood image making techniques in politics. I wonder if that is Kennedy’s true legacy. And it's not all rosy. Case in point, what do we get when the red fades from the center of our Barack Obama campaign logo?

Karl said...

An artist of serious intent {Velasquez, Goya, Freud etc} sees thru all the window dressing and gets to the core of the subject.These Fuchs' pictures, while pretty and clever, buy into all that myth you regurgitate.

That same misty-eyed approach was also evidenced in the Obama campaign and is gradually unravelling.

If you prefer myth and pretty pictures to the truth that's fine.I try to see beyond superficial image-making.

Jesse Hamm said...

"An artist of serious intent {Velasquez, Goya, Freud etc} sees thru all the window dressing and gets to the core of the subject."

So King Philip was that paragon of noble strength that Velas-- er, Velazquez portrayed him as? Hmm.

Karl said...

So you have better insight than Francis Bacon on these matters.You must really know your stuff.

Jesse Hamm said...

Bacon died when Philip was 21; I doubt his opinion of Philip, if any, counts for much.

But you must have an opinion of Philip, if you believe Velazquez cut through all the pretty myths and revealed his true nature?

Karl said...


Are you talking about Francis
Bacon the Irish modernist painter who revered Velasquez and painted the 'Screaming Pope'?
If for some reason you're talking about the Elizabethan playwright you just fell flat on your face my friend.
Oh thanks for correcting my spelling, did that show up when you googled 'Francis Bacon' AND GOT THE WRONG ONE! Ha Ha.

kev ferrara said...

Karl, sadly, I cannot help but believe what I believe, rather than the beliefs you assign to me.

I do, however, agree that, in general Velazquez and Freud's work is more incisive with respect to character than Fuchs'. But there is more than one kind of truth to pursue and depth isn't a binary situation. If a work isn't the deepest ever, it can still have levels to fathom. It isn't automatically shallow.

And no, I don't buy into "all that bull" about the fame and power. What interests me on the topic is the struggles of character under crushing pressure. I like how Fuchs addresses that topic in the darker picture. I don't think it is the deepest or shallowest work of art done on the topic. I think its just right.

Jesse Hamm said...


"Bacon the Irish modernist painter who revered Velasquez and painted the 'Screaming Pope'...
Oh thanks for correcting my spelling, did that show up when you googled 'Francis Bacon' AND GOT THE WRONG ONE! Ha Ha."

Interesting theory, but I corrected your spelling before you ever mentioned Bacon.

That you failed to clarify whether you meant Bacon, the philosopher and contemporary of Velazquez & Philip, or Bacon, the modern painter, is your problem. Whichever Bacon you prefer, your notion that great paintings (like those of Velazquez) reveal the soul of the sitter requires that King Philip be who Velazquez portrayed him to be. If Philip was a great statesman, then your theory is safe on that front. But if Philip was less noble than he appears in his portraits, you have to concede either that Velazquez was not a great painter, or that Fuchs can't be excluded from greatness for dressing up a pretender. Your dilemma remains.

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

"The artist Shepard Fairey (shown here being applauded by trained seals)"....Very funny.
Thanks for the continuing great posts. One of my favorite blogs.


Be careful of getting on the snob artist bandwagon when going after Fairey. You can argue that he's un original ( he's very much unoriginal) but not that he doesn't make a great graphic image. Most artists work from photos and most artists don't get face time with the President when working on a piece. I would never want to set the standard that a graphic made from a photo is to be thumbed down by the oil painter elitists. If that happens, we are going down a foolish path.

Karl said...

Jesse: Anyone who is even reasonably knowledgable about art would know that the modern Francis Bacon was the Francis Bacon with the artistic relationship to Velazquez.
If you didn't know that, how can I take your point of view seriously?

kev ferrara said...

Studio Dynamo...

Under what circumstances would it be okay to say that high quality, original art work done by brilliant talents is simply better than derivative, un-ethical hack work done by cut and paste mediocrities?

Let us know, okay? We don't want to be snobs.

Jesse Hamm said...


"the Francis Bacon with the artistic relationship to Velazquez. If you didn't know that, how can I take your point of view seriously?"

You apparently take it seriously enough to defer, at last, to my spelling of Velazquez.

As for Bacon, the point against which you invoked him concerned Philip, not Velazquez.

In any case, Bacon's a red herring, irrelevant to the dilemma you created for yourself. Since you've repeatedly refused to address that dilemma, I suppose we're done here.

Chief RZ said...

Kev, Glad you acknowledged not only The Truth, but the implications as well of communism.

"Ah, Fairey's New Man Graphics... Hope on a Socialist rope... how it evokes those grand old dreams of a totalitarian fantasy state to shepherd the bleating flock unscathed through life, just like that dreamy ol' Soviet Union did... *swoon*"

Too bad the MSM is still on a 'drunken' binge.

Jesse Hamm said...

Update from NYT:

"Shepard Fairey... pleaded guilty Friday to a charge stemming from his misconduct in trying to bolster claims in a lawsuit over which photograph had been used as a basis for the poster.
Mr. Fairey, of Los Angeles, pleaded to one count of criminal contempt and could face up to six months in prison. A prosecutor, Daniel W. Levy, told the magistrate judge, Frank Maas, that the government was likely to seek some term of imprisonment for Mr. Fairey, who will be sentenced on July 16."

Unknown said...

Nice images David of the Kennedy portraits---beyond the political realm They are done well in an era where they were most appreciated. Nice Fuchs photos, I know he was thrilled to be there. it would be interested to see what Bernie captured in his own camera that day. I doubt that Johnson could have ever been pleased. He thought himself to be ugly anyway and wanted no part of anything that would resemble a Kennedy tradition. I wonder if Rockwell ever did a Johnson portrait.