In a world of superficial sound bytes dominated by a generation absorbed with the self and the surface of things, Clinton Fein’s work dissects the vicissitudes of our body politic, pricking the raw nerves that the increasingly conservative mass media tiptoes around. Fein’s politically charged art offers social critique through compelling, aggressive, and daring images. He subverts existing imagery by digitally altering, manipulating, and collaging fragments to create striking images that shock, mock, and amuse. George W. Bush becomes King Kong atop the World Trade Center, flailing futilely at inbound airplanes. Condoleeza Rice becomes Marie Antoinette, complacent in finery and bewailing the lack of forewarning of imminent turmoil. “The Last Supper” becomes peopled by the President’s cabinet and cronies over a slogan proclaiming “Better Be the Last.” The overwhelmed face in Edvard Munch’s “Scream” becomes Bush’s, or perhaps the American Everyman who did not elect him.
These images are not mannered or labored; they shoot fast from the hip and are produced at a prodigious rate, promulgated through Fein’s website, Annoy.com, in a one-man parallel of the mass media news cycle. On the website, they are amplified by charged “editorial” commentary, whether in prose, verse, or parodies of popular lyrics. This continual program of publication can be read as constituting a type of performance art that simultaneously performs politics through activism.
Fein continues a venerable tradition of socially engaged art that has now been subsumed by what he views as the current taste for sly, slick, and narcissistic work. Much of what he sees on the gallery circuit appears to him as cases of the emperor proclaiming new clothes while parading nothing—or at least very little content. Fein was born and educated in South Africa, which has a powerful tradition of resistance art against apartheid. This has colored his view of art as a social and democratic phenomenon capable of addressing the man in the street and promoting social and democratic values, which he does now as a patriotic American.
Fein’s pointed gestures at the nakedness of emperors often has irked the powers that be and led him into some high-profile confrontations. In 1994, Clinton Fein’s CD-ROM Conduct Unbecoming, based on the book by renowned investigative reporter Randy Shilts that examined the issue of gays in the military, pioneered the use of digital technology as an art form. When the US Navy unsuccessfully attempted to block its release, it became the first CD-ROM to triumph under First Amendment protections. Conduct Unbecoming went on to win the prestigious Critics Choice Award and was dubbed “evolutionary” by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Fein’s most notable victory was his Supreme Court suit against Attorney General of the United States, challenging the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act in 1997, where Fein’s right to disseminate his art was upheld in a landmark victory for First Amendment rights. His criticisms of the government’s attempts to regulate speech on the Internet were published by The Wall Street Journal, who profiled him as “a player” in their “Names on the Net” special feature.
Fein is currently on the board of The First Amendment Project (FAP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of information, expression, and petition. FAP provides advice, educational materials, and legal representation to its core constituency of activists, journalists, and artists in service of fundamental liberties. In recognition of his actions, Clinton Fein was nominated for a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2001. His work and website have also received considerable media attention both in the US and globally.
While art and digital technology are social and political tools in Fein’s hands—whether he is forging images on the internet, on the street, on T-shirts, or in the gallery context—he also works as a stills photographer, producing more meditative essays on such issues as urban blight, graffiti, and the sado-masochistic and homoerotic overtones of militarism.