Interview with art professor, journalist, and author Jim Daichendt about LA street art and his new book on Shepard Fairey.
By Daniel Barron
Jim Daichendt has two masters and a doctorate degree from Columbia University. He’s a professor of Art History at Azusa Pacific University and the author of three books on art with a fourth releasing next month. As a journalist, he has been a writer and editor of a variety of arts journals and newspapers.
I have a year on my high school newspaper, a community college journalism course, and faith in the belief that people really love talking about themselves.
Nevertheless, two years ago, Daichendt and I were each compelled by a deep investment in the Los Angeles street art movement to immerse ourselves in that weird and exciting segment of West Coast culture. In a meeting of the old guard and the new, the so-called “Professor Street Art” schooled me on his experiences researching for his hardback tome Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art (now available), as well as his observations on the subject of his next book, Shepard Fairey (Available next month). Suffice to say, I was an attentive pupil.
What interests me most about your book is that it’s as concerned with the subculture of street art as the art, itself, which has always been a point of focus for me, as well. Immediately in my travels I became very invested in the sort of soap opera of the culture. You have these larger-than-life personalities with creative handles and as you become more immersed you start to learn who’s friends with who, who teams up with who, you learn about rivalries and who are perceived as the villains of the scene. For me, it became very addicting. I would be surprised if that element is as strong in the fine art community. How deep did you immerse yourself into the community and how did you feel about it?
My perspective on this entire process was that I was there as a guest and was there to learn. What I noticed in my initial research is that a lot of people who were part of the street art world, writing about it or organizing exhibits or running blogs, were all very much invested as artists themselves Because of this ground floor perspective, they tend to be very emotional about it. And coming as an outsider and professor, I felt this was a fresh take, an academic one not currently offered. While the politics can be unsettling, I do admire the enthusiasm of these relationships and there is something attractive about it, something that is missing inside the academic art world.
That ability to ignore rules, to break boundaries, I thought that was absolutely fascinating. I think the type of personalities that do that also tend to be a bit more volatile and emotional and that is going to lead to strong friendships and broken relationships alike But there are philosophical differences within this subculture- big and small where I’ve tried to remain neutral. You listen to the stories, but it’s amazing how many times people try to drag you into it. But that’s expected when you start to care about people. So to answer your questions, the fine art world has similar issues It’s just magnified within the street art world because of the relatively small size and scope of the scene.
As someone who is very interested in psychology, I find the LA street art world fascinating from a sociological perspective. Like you, I try and stay above the fray, but I would be lying if I didn’t find the gossip that goes around to be part of the appeal. That said, I’ve always found it to be a very open and accepting community. If you read my first article, I had no idea what to expect when I started out. I didn’t know if the artists were going to be secretive or shut me down and thank god they didn’t , because if researching for those initial articles hadn’t been such a positive experience Yay! LA might never have taken off. Were your subjects always cooperative and candid with you?
I received a few different responses, in terms of how open folks were. My first inquiry into street art was while finishing a book called Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research. It’s an academic book on knowledge in the visual arts and what we do with it and how it translates into research. At the end of the book I wrote a chapter on Banksy and applied some of the research methods to a particular work of art by him. Essentially I wanted to show how some particular research methods could be used towards a street art work. Through the research, I contacted Pest Control (Banksy’s studio) and told them what I was doing. They were super helpful in terms of fact-checking, finding images, and I was just so darn impressed compared to my dealings with museums over the past few years. From that experience,I started following some of the local artists in LA and caught on to Thank You X and Bumblebee. I liked what they were doing for different reasons. Thank You X had connections to Warhol and I felt street art was a reversal of Arthur Danto’s take on Pop Art. And with Bumblebee I appreciated the approachability and scale of his work. I initially requested an interview with Thank You X and wrote a magazine article. Again, a very positive experience. Then things just started to takeoff . I decided to go ahead and do the book because there wasn’t a specific LA book and one was needed based upon the incredible work that was being created each week. While most street art books were arranged alphabetically or were primarily image books, I hoped to write something with teeth. To start the date collection, I organized what is called a “snowball interview process” where I would talk to one person and at the end of my interview would ask, “Who would you recommend that I talk to?” They would suggest three or four people and then I would continue to follow-up with these individuals with the same questions. Along the way I did meet a few people that were “Who are you? What are you doing?” and they questioned my motives, but the further I got into the project and the more people came to know about it before we met.
I imagine that blogs were a big help to you, as well. I can’t imagine that the scene would reach its current level of magnitude without the presence of the blog culture. I think they help to preserve and nurture the sense of legend and myth, what you call in your book “The Hero’s Journey” that really fascinates me about the scene.
No doubt, I agree with you. I think blogs are an important aspect of documenting the short lifespan of street art and they also broadcast these achievements to the public at large. Without the internet, I don’t think street art would be the type of movement that it has become, but you also can’t discount the people that have facilitated walls, manage galleries, and support street artists by buying their work. They all have an important part of cultivating that climate for making art.
Specialty photographers have been super important, too. I was at a party with Birdman and KH no. 7 and she was observing how much more exhausting his life is than the artists. They can take breaks, but there’s always going to be new art out there that people like him or The OnePointEight have to document. There’s no rest for them. I’m not surprised that many of those photographers have become legends in their own right.
I agree, folks like Birdman, Lord Jim, PhotoJenInc, Jennifer Strauss, and B4Flight are vital to that visual communication that happens, because more people view these things online A good example is what’s happening in New York with the Banksy “Residency.” There are more people viewing his work through the Internet or Instagram than are actually seeing them in person. Even if they get destroyed it doesn’t matter, because the photographs are going to live on. Birdman’s success comes from how often he’s out there and how often he gets the latest images, because everyone has a camera now, everyone can take a shot with their phones, but its his consistency that makes his name come up in a conversation like this. I know I’m appreciative, because folks like Lord Jim and Birdman keep the conversation going.
What year did you specifically start taking a deeper interest in street art?
Good question (laughs). In the introduction of “Stay Up!” I wrote that street art was always Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. That’s where it started and basically where it stops when you study modern and contemporary history. Even in my own classes I wouldn’t necessarily talk about Shepard Fairey or any of these folks that have continued that legacy after the late 80s. For me it was late 2010, early 2011 when I took an initial interest in the things that were happening here in LA.
I guess we started investigating around the same time, then. For me, it started at a show with Septerhed, KH no. 7, and Destroy All Design. I pretty much decided that I would start my blog and start covering street art on the spot and I write about that in my first article. There was a level of fervor among the community from that February through the summer that I haven’t witnessed since. That was smack in the middle of what Lydia Emily calls the “gift shop artist” boom, people that were inspired by Exit Through the Gift Shop. The level of electricity in the room when I would go to openings was so infectious. Did you observe any changes in the energy of the scene from when you started doing your research versus what you observe at the end of it?
I’ve seen some ups and downs. It’s a bit like a Richter scale, in a way. You get incredible periods of activity that are exciting followed by relatively quiet times. The movie has been a big part of that, but anytime Banksy comes to town activity spikes. It happened when he was in LA promoting Exit Through the Gift Shop leading up to the Academy Awards. You see individuals, at least from my perspective, three or four at a time, that are really busy. Someone may be big now, but four months later that’s going to change. That was something hammered into me as I was interviewing street artists over and over again. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s how it is. As you progress as an artist other opportunities come up and you put your energy into those things. I’ve never seen that as a negative thing, from the outside because it’s a game you ultimately can’t win The idea of being true to oneself or keeping it real, that’s where those aspirations kind of run out.
It makes sense. As a fan, it’s disappointing when you don’t see your favorite artist around, anymore. I can think of a few friends of mine that got busted or had some close calls and they admitted that it kind of took the bloom off the rose for them. That superhero romanticism kind of disappeared after that. I totally understand your fatigue, though. After writing five articles about street art in a row I felt like I never, ever wanted to write about street art again. But then someone will come along like Annie Preece and it will reinvigorate my interest. In your book you talk about a hierarchy of artists. There are the Elders, the Second Tier, and the Third Tier. Which population did you speak to the most in researching your book?
The tiers in the book aren’t based so much on age as they are on how long they’ve been practicing their craft. Someone like Robbie Conal has been around for decades. He’s one of the elder statesman and the second tier would then be influenced by folks like him but may not have the same longevity yet have still enjoyed a significant amount of success. And then the third tier of folks have just started, they’re a year or two into it. They’re still very fresh, it’s the largest pool and the majority of them will burn out. Only a select few will graduate to that second and ultimately to the first level. Most of the people I interviewed were from the third and second tier, because they represent the largest pools. There’s very few elder statesman that have seen those trials and come out of them.
Do you have an estimate of how many artists you talked to?
Initially, my goal was fifty, and then finished somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred. That’s kind of the process of the snowball interview technique. When information starts to repeat and with each interview you’re not getting anything new. That’s when you know you’ve hit a tipping point and can finish the book.
Let’s talk about your upcoming book. You’re not the first person to write a book about Shepard Fairey, so why him and why now?
I think Fairey’s work is a good barometer for what’s happening in the arts and how a new generation of artists have changed the way they think about art. I think growing up in a digital world,artists are more apt to use the virtual landscape as found object Fairey is an excellent example. I also use him as a springboard for discussing the white cube, graffiti, stickers, and multiples.
The other thing is that Fairey has facilitated every book thats been written about him. It’s been produced or designed by his studio. Writers were hired, so this will be the first one that’s not. The first chapter starts out with art critic Christopher Knight criticizing him quite harshly, calling him Hello Kitty with pretensions. It’s fun and I know a more critical engagement can be taken with a book like this than one that was approved by Obey.
I’m assuming you didn’t interview him for the book, then?
(laughs) The process of how this came to be was very interesting. Initially I started writing and was doing basic research for four months until I met one of his employees for coffee. The meeting was positive and he offered to officially introduce us. Shepard also took a liking to the idea and it was not long before I found myself at a big table with Shepard and bunch of employees curious about what I was doing There was a lot of back and forth but I was encouraged when he shared that “I know we’re going to disagree. You’re going to say things that I don’t agree with. But ultimately, I’m cool with what you’re doing.” He liked the idea that I’m not just writing about street art, that I’m an academic, and was very appreciative overall, so his studio provided images when I asked for them but there was still a distance that was tough to overcome at times.
It’s the first time anyone has ever had that relationship with him in that way. Since then we’ve met a few times and traded e-mails or texts about the book. I very much value and respect what he does. While I don’t agree with everything, I provide what I think is a fair argument. He’s read the book, now, and I know he feels a little weird about it, but ultimately he understands the approach and role of being an artist will continue to be critically analyzed.
That definitely shows some humility on his part, that he can have a reasonable reaction to something that isn’t entirely sycophantic. Was there a quality or perception of him that changed for you in the writing and research process?
Yeah. He’s a guy who has progressed into an icon, a celebrity in the art world, whether you see him on The Colbert Report or the nightly news. I’m surprised at how insecure he is and how desperately he wants to be accepted. For example we were talking about the artist Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and the amount of assistants they both use. Damien Hirst even admits that some of his assistants are better at painting than others, and he’ll name out who those folks are. Shepard’s very defensive about the idea that he makes all the creative decisions in his art and he goes to great lengths to explain how his assistants simply follow directions He asked me, “Why do you think I get criticized so much on this issue? I told him, “It doesn’t matter! Of course these big artists are using staff to create their work. It’s the fact that you feel like you have to explain your intentions that’s interesting. Why on earth do you feel like you need to make a blog posts every three or four months to defend yourself?” I found that to be incredibly surprising, but also kind of endearing.
So it wasn’t so much Shepard Fairey that you wanted to write about as much as what he symbolized and the themes that were connected to that. What thesis are you presenting with this book?
When you’re writing any book, themes will come out that surprise you. You’ll go in with a few that you want to explore but I am more interested in the ones that grow from the research. For example I believe that the modern art gallery is cut off from reality and is a philosophy used in most galleries and museums. Bryan O’ Doherty wrote a book called Inside The White Cube and did a number of articles on that, and basically summarizes that the modernist white cube is made to make the artwork seem more important. There aren’t windows to the outside world and the more space given to a painting the more important the work seems. The artist, himself, in the white cube is often treated like an embarrassing piece of furniture. With Shepard Fairey, I’m using him as an example of how that white cube mentality is being reversed with his exhibits. Shepard is an incredibly important part of his art shows, whether he’s DJing- his personality is part of the experience, and some people will come just to see him. Art and life interact and the guests are more likely to buy a print, book, or receive a sticker than bow to the master artist on the wall.
Another theme that materialized is when I compare Shepard to Thomas Kinkade. I think Obey and Kinkade have an awful lot in common in how they use marketing to affect their brand. That becomes a fun conversation, as well and plays into the overall message that this is a critical look at his art and provides a better understanding of art in the 21st century.
Also by Jim Daichendt:
Follow Jim Daichendt on Twitter at @daichendt and Instagram at @jimdaichendt
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