Obey the Establishment: Shepard Fairey's Subliminal Art Message

Shepard Fairey, the creator of the famous Obama “Hope” poster, made news recently with another piece of bizarre visual propaganda, this time denouncing America’s habit of clinging to guns and religion.


He produced the poster last month in support of the failing anti-gun legislation, and most recently had it printed on hundreds of protest signs in anticipation of a massive anti-gun rally in Washington. From sympathetic Buzzfeed.com: “Artist Shepard Fairey will paper downtown D.C. Thursday with copies of a new work aimed at reigniting the push for gun control.” Reality check: the advertised Occupy The NRA rally attracted only about 60 participants.

That the anti-NRA poster looks Orwellian is not a coincidence. Fairey probably believes he has a spiritual channel directly to George Orwell: after all, he had designed book covers for Penguin’s Animal Farm and 1984, in addition to a series of nightmarish posters collectively titled Nineteeneightyfouria. His Orwellian connection, however, is very unflattering. Lacking the depth and, apparently, the slightest understanding of Orwell’s actual message, Fairey rather channels some mind-numb Party functionary out of George Orwell’s novel as he manufactures establishment propaganda that facilitates the takeover of the individual by the all-powerful state.

The gallery page gives this blurb about Nineteeneightyfouria, likely written from the artist’s own words:

Shepard’s artwork both scrutinizes and distorts the narrative of the modern American Dream. Commenting on underpinnings of what Shepard terms the ‘capitalist machine’, it aims to critique those who support blind nationalism and war. Fairey addresses monolithic institutional authority, the role of counter culture, and independent individuals who question the cultural paradigm.


Contrary to this description, however, Fairey’s art not only imitates Soviet state-sponsored propaganda posters, but directly promotes a “monolithic institutional authority,” supports “blind nationalism and war” currently waged against the Western world, and advocates the creation of a system that crushes “independent individuals who question the cultural paradigm.” Fairey makes his ideology so obvious that Orwell’s books with his designs on the covers begin to look like instruction manuals.

The cognitive dissonance between Shepard Fairey’s ears must be deafening, but if one listens to it closely — and maybe plays it backwards — one may discern certain phrases like “America: the land where God saves and Satan invests in assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” That must be the artistic method which prompted Fairey to conjure up his latest anti-NRA poster.

For a self-styled dissenter, Fairey is awfully zealous in toeing the Party line. Anyone with at least a modicum of self-awareness would find this embarrassing — but Fairey seems to be one of those “rebels” on the collectivist left who can say, with a straight face, “I’m a non-conformist because everyone else is.”

Following the latest state-approved line of thinking, Fairey declares on his web page that he is

perplexed by the claim of much of the nation to have “Christian values.” If God tells us to love our neighbor and not to take another human life, where do the assault weapons and piles of ammo fit into these “Christian values”? I personally think assault weapons fall more in the “Satan’s values” category.


Whoever Fairey thinks he is channeling, it is not George Orwell, because Orwell advocated gun ownership and even left us this powerful quote:

That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.

Pacifism is a frequent theme in Fairey’s posters. Misrepresenting America’s war against Islamic terrorism, he likes to depict Muslims as victims of U.S. military aggression. But Orwell has another message for Shepard Fairey:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one.

And even more to the point:

Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi.

It is doubtful that Orwell’s writings have had any influence on Fairey beyond the fashionable game of pretense, so popular with today’s pseudo-intellectual bohemians. Instead, as a matter of fact, his major source of intellectual and artistic inspiration comes straight out of John Carpenter’s B-grade sci-fi flick They Live, from which, by the artist’s own admission, he borrowed his logo and the “OBEY” slogan that became a trademark of his entire artistic career.

They Live was … the basis for my use of the word ‘obey,'” Fairey says.


The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising. One of my main concepts … 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. I designed a graphic … which we used for the invitations and a billboard I rented on the corner of Sunset and Hollywood to promote the show.

Well, if the activist artist believed there was any other possible way besides advertising to make the people aware of available products and services, why did he create a poster and rent a billboard to advertise his own project?

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The plot of Carpenter’s conspiratorial movie is centered around a drifter who discovers special Ray-Bans which reveal hidden messages behind billboards, television, magazines, and posters, such as “Obey, consume, reproduce, watch TV, this is your God,” and so on. He then joins the underground and helps to eradicate the lizard-like aliens who had hypnotized humanity into obedience.

When this anti-capitalist film came out in 1988, the Soviet Union was still around. The Soviet government’s stealth methods and media messaging weren’t any better than those of the lizard-like aliens, and they did it all without any commercial advertising. There was no place for advertising or any other capitalist commercialism in a command economy with no market, no competition, and no private industries. All means of production and distribution belonged to the state, along with the press, radio, television, and all the square mileage of billboard space. The Soviet consumers either bought what was in the stores or cursed the shortages and went home empty-handed. Then they either watched one of the two available state channels on TV or they drank vodka.


In all fairness, the alien lizards were running a more humane and efficient system than the Soviet communists. At least they provided people with more liberties and a much higher living standard.

If you think commercialism is bad, think of the alternative. Today’s reality offers two choices: it’s either the free markets or a state-run economy. In terms of media content, it means that we either have to put up with occasional messages from the show sponsors peddling their products, or we watch non-stop commercial-free government propaganda. Whoever pays also orders the music.

So the next time you get annoyed by TV or radio commercials, please change the channel — but don’t try to change the system. Not only will you wind up watching government-filtered news, sanitized films, and lying, uninspired TV shows filled with overt and covert indoctrination — you will also be sponsoring it with your own tax dollars. To paraphrase Yakov Smirnoff’s formula, “In Soviet Russia, the media brainwashes the sponsor.”

The Soviet streets, too, had plenty of billboards, but not of a commercial nature. They displayed what the Soviet government and the Communist Party officially labeled as “visual agitation and propaganda,” or “agitprop” — something Shepard Fairey is only too eager to emulate.

They glorified the country’s leaders, promoted government policies, called the citizens to work harder for the common good, and otherwise reinforced the establishment narrative by visual means. Towards the end of the Soviet Union’s existence, no one believed in such messages anymore. And yet no one objected to having those billboards because quite often they were the only spots of bright color dotting the otherwise drab and colorless city blocks.


I know it because I spent three years of my life in the USSR painting them. Visual propaganda was the only game in town for a young, non-union graphic artist and the only creative outlet allowed by the system. I would have preferred doing commercial advertising instead, but the government-run economy didn’t offer me that choice. Shepard Fairey, on the other hand, has plenty of choices. Why he, an American-born artist, came to despise commercial advertising and to love second-hand government agitprop is the key question.

Was it because he saw a bad Hollywood movie at an impressionable young age and the state-run public education didn’t provide him with enough cognitive tools to recover from its simplistic message? Probably. But that doesn’t explain the existence of millions of like-minded low-information voters, whose brains have been programmed to accept every anti-capitalist propagandistic cliché, subliminal or not, that today’s American culture and news media throw at them. Neither does it explain the resulting massive demoralization, which the movie about the lizard-engineered conspiracy doesn’t even begin to describe.

Has it ever occurred to Shepard Fairey that certain subliminal messages may also be lurking behind his own posters, and that those messages aren’t really original, but rather a second-generation copy of what his mind had subliminally absorbed in his formative years?

Let’s don a pair of our own special Ray-Bans and take a look at his latest creation. The real message behind the poster reads:








Who, exactly, is Fairey’s art asking us to obey?



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