It can be argued that no other street artist speaks to vagaries of modern consumeristic life than artist Ron English. A most telling quote from him can be found during an interview in the very successful documentary Supersize Me. “The way I look at it is like, Cezanne was inspired by the mountain he saw out his window, and when I look out my window, I see no mountains I just see billboards and advertisements, so I use that as my inspiration” (Spurlock, 2004).
For English, the monolithic paean to consumerism, the ubiquitous billboard filled with images urging urbanites to become just another cog in the capitalist system, has become his muse. Subverting and skewering the semiotic of modern advertising which dominates the metropolitan skyline has become his life’s work.
Most interestingly, in the interview above, English claims not Warhol and others in the pop art movement as inspiration, but the frenetic work of Pollock and De Kooning. He wants his art to be seen as the whole picture, something missing from much of street art, which seems to wish the to be considered as part and parcel to the place and time it is placed in. For English, his work needs no interpretation. Its symbolism is clear, and the semiotics are rendered somewhat unnecessary.
Take for example his famous piece Abraham Obama. “According to English, the Obama campaign wanted “street artists,” such as himself, to create supportive posters, particularly aimed at young voters, and the artist made sure to put his work up legally” (Seidman, p. 14). I sincerely doubt English would have been all that doubled by the legality, for him, his art often “acts out against society” saying “Legally, I don’t have a right to do this, but as a proponent of free speech, I have an obligation to do this” (Carvajal, 2006). As for the image to the right, English’s piece is a remarkable remix of the 14th President with candidate Obama in 2008. “To associate a candidate with great former presidents has been a common approach that American poster designers have employed, but Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt had always been seen in the background. English’s creation was a unique exception to the rule” (p. 14). Not only the association of both Lincoln and Obama as representing Illinois ( and Obama’s oft repeated refrain that Lincoln was his favorite president), but clearly Obama’s position as the first black president connects to the issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some authors claim issue of interest with English is his relation to the internet, as his art is quite prolific, available, and recognizable. His use of the “corporate persona” as artistic subject fights back against a culture inundated with these identities, often by utilizing the very same means, methods, and subjects the consumerati uses. “The World Wide Web (the Web) gives members of the digitally connected public new capacities to evade their subject positions as mere consumers of corporate imagery by providing technological means and social and cultural conditions for consumers to take the commodity signs of mass culture and transform these into popular culture and to create a popular legal culture in the process. By mass culture we mean mass-produced texts, images, and sounds— cultural artifacts circulated to a mass of consumers by centrally controlled media industries. Such a culture is unidirectional, or in Bakhtinian terms, monologic—it speaks from a singular place with a singular voice—and it does not let you talk back, or if you do, your voice is unlikely to be widely heard. You might strategically alter billboards with graffiti, as Ron English, the Guerrilla Girls, and the Billboard Liberation Front do” (Coombe & Herman, p. 920-1).
English is emblematic of a new kind of cultural democracy one which is reactive to the message sent by corporations trying to sell the masses its wares. Ohmann (2000) frames this discussion in Baudrillardian terms, noting the unrealness of corporate billboards are impossible to discern from the real, as they are encoded with the “orchestration rituals of the media” (Baudrillard, p. 21). “Billboards are prime examples of this hyperreality that is created by simulations. By specifically hijacking billboards and presenting a new idea in the fashion of the simulated one, English successfully combats the hyperreal by subverting its illusion-making process. In one of his more successful campaigns, English went after the “supersizing” at McDonald’s. The reality is that humans only need so much food in order to survive, but McDonald’s has convinced the American public that super-sizing is better and cheaper. Culturally, Americans believe that bigger is better, but English actively worked to bring a different awareness by creating an obese Ronald McDonald. In order to confront the hyperreal successfully, the text must include an image, making street culture jamming a very unique form of narrative” (Ohmann 2000, p. 94).
It is this confrontation that English’s work is most important for, especially concerning cultural democracy, which needs to be heard or seen in order to participate the realm of ideas made possible via this free exchange of ideas. As he says in discussing his mural on the United States-Mexico border wall just outside the small town of Penitas, Texas, “The thing about a wall is that people tend to see only one side of it, the side they are on. And for those with enough distance from the wall, it’s all together out of of mind… So how do you bring a wall that’s far enough away to ignore, close enough to see both sides? For me, the answer is simple. Paint it. Make it easier to see” (Parry, 2010).
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Carvajal, P. (Director). (2006). POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English [Motion picture]. United States: Cinema Libre Studio.
Coombe, R. J., & Herman, A. (2001). Culture wars on the net: Intellectual property and corporate propriety in digital environments. South Atlantic Quarterly, 100(4), 919-947.
English, R. (2008). Popaganda: The art and crimes of Ron English. Retrieved from http://www.popaganda.com
Ohmann, R. (2000). The function of English at the present time. Falling into Theory. Richter, D., ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 89-95.
Parry, W. (2010). Against the wall: The art of resistance in Palestine. London: Lawrence Hill Books.
Seidman, S. A. (2010). Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the US presidency and visual design. Journal of Visual Literacy, 29.
Spurlock, M. (Director). (2004). Super size me [Motion picture]. United States: Kathbur Pictures.