‘E Pluribus Venom’

It’s an innocent enough looking poster. A little girl (let’s call her Polly), bow-intact, smelling a rose.

This print by Shepard Fairey warns against the dangers of blind obedience in society. It was part of a larger collection of Fairey's work, “E Pluribus Venom,” exhibited at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in 2007.

But look again. Don’t miss the four-letter word written at the bottom left and blended discreetly into the print of the background: “OBEY.” Now that adds a twist. Little Polly isn’t looking so innocent anymore.

At this point, I thought the poster was some kind of Communist-propaganda used in wartime. It might have been all the red, or the curiousness of the letters, or the planes flying above.

In any case, it’s not a communist-era poster, but it is propaganda. The poster is one of many in a collection called “E Pluribus Venom” by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, whose biggest claim-to-fame today is designing the “Hope” poster that appeared in the 2008 Obama campaign. This print, however, was exhibited in the summer of 2007 in a massive exhibition featuring his art at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

The title “E Pluribus Venom,” which translates “Out of many, poison,” is derived from “E Pluribus Unum,” (out of many, one) an early motto adopted by the U.S. Government which appears on U.S. currency. Much of Fairey’s work expresses concern over the loss of power and influence of the individual in society in favor of homogeny. Fairey theorizes that homogeny causes societal decline.

Fairey has created a larger “OBEY” campaign to emphasize the dangers of a society which becomes unaware of and complacent with its surroundings. The campaign criticizes blind nationalism and celebrates questioning the symbols and methods used by the American government.

This poster, with its clear message of blind obedience beginning at a young age (it’s no coincidence that Fairey’s subject is young) is a prime example of at least one of Fairey’s messages: a society merely “going through the motions” is a society unaware of its environment.

A society which merely “obeys” forgets why it is doing so.

For more on Shepard Fairey, read this article from The New York Times.

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