Is it right to copy? Visual artists and copyright.

7 05 2010

I’m not going to go over the well-trodden ground that is the appropriation debate, covered here and here. But I am going to throw this one into the ring… After the on-air discussion at the ABC earlier in the week, I asked Sam Leach a question that has been puzzling me for some time: what his response would be if an artist whose work he did not particularly admire – for argument’s sake I used Ken Done as an example – appropriated one of his works of art, altered it slightly and signed it, presented it as his own, then started selling postcards and t-shirts down at the Rocks in Sydney embellished with said image.

I won’t influence your thinking on this conundrum by repeating Sam’s very reasonable response. But the subtext to the question is – are the laws of copyright in the visual arts set to one side in instances where the appropriator is an artist whose work the progenitor of the image admires? If we’re to look at the cold, hard legal facts of the matter, the appropriated artist’s copyright is infringed where substantial portions of their work are reproduced by another artist without their prior consent. But it is up to the artist to enforce their rights – if they approve of the outcome of the appropriation, they’re hardly going to prosecute the artist who has referenced their work. But what if the maker of the original image is unhappy with the altered image? Or does not approve of the way the image is being presented or sold? Appropriation and the use and alteration of imagery that, according to strict legal precedent, can be subject to copyright laws is a central tenet of many contemporary artists’ work both in Australia and internationally. But the practice is characterised by many and varied shades of grey. Should the question of whether or not the matter is prosecuted depend upon the artist’s discretion, or should there be a more objective set of standards and procedures in place?

The debate has been well and truly sorted out in other arts sectors. The case in music is clear-cut – just ask Men At Work, who are no doubt cursing that now infamous flute riff in ‘Land Downunder’ (can the flute riff? Hmm). As it is in theatre and dance – if you stage a performance, the creator will be given due recognition, even where the director and cast may have dramatically reinterpreted the author’s original production. In that instance, all contributors to the production will be given due credit. But it will be promoted as “so-and-so’s production of such-and-such’s ‘thingumy-jig'”. In the visual arts it has, to date, mostly been an ad hoc approach based on artists willingly waiving their rights to accommodate the practice of appropriation. But it is interesting to consider what would happen in a case such as the example given above.

(image: Marcel Duchamp, ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’, via


Fast cars and art: the BMW Art Car show roars into Grand Central Station

26 03 2009

New Yorkers will be treated to the questionable privilege of being able to view ‘artworks’ by some extremely famous names in a free exhibition at Grand Central Terminal from 25 March. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauchenberg, Stella – they’re all on display.

I used air quotes there because I remain rather sceptical about the value of these projects.

Of course there are some pretty dog-ball obvious benefits to the participants. BMW gets invaluable free publicity – I mean, here I am, half a world away, writing about their vehicles. Under normal circumstances, I would give a flashy, Eurotrashy car no more than a passing glance. Also, what better way to gloss up your brand than to be associated with some of the most stellar names of the 20th century? In Grand Central Station, no less, with a captive audience of fifty-five gazillion people trudging past on their way to and from other places.

For their part, Grand Central Station management gets to stage an exhibition that, I presume, costs them little or nothing. Meanwhile, they can promote themselves as champions of the proletariat – bringing great art and great names to the people – improving the lot of the downtrodden commuter masses. 

And as for the artists? It’s pretty safe to assume that they were all paid handsomely for their endeavours, even though I reckon Andy really phoned it in with his effort. At least Warhol and his fellow Pop artists, and Frank Stella I suppose, could justify the process as an extension of their practise – engaging with forms of mass production.

My problem with this is that it is an insult to the viewing public to insinuate, as this does, that the only way to get people to look at modern/contemporary art is to negotiate a very uncomfortable liaison with an object that has mass appeal… Oooeerr… A fast, expensive car… And it’s painted!…. By a bloke whose paintings sell for millions of dollars…. Ooooo…. Colour me impressed! It’s appealing to the lowest of low common denominators. I’m a staunch advocate of encouraging and facilitating access to art, and for breaking down social, economic and educational barriers that preclude many people from enjoying art. But this is neither good, nor particularly interesting, art. Besides which, it just seems silly.

Then again, perhaps my judgement is coloured by the fact that our very own Ken Done is one of the sixteen “world’s most respected artists”  who have been asked to create an Art Car since 1975. Andy Warhol… Robert Rauschenberg… Frank Stella….and…. Ken Done. And, sadly for Mr. Done, who has been preternaturally commercially successful during his career, as the brilliant boys from The Chaser have shown in their hilarious spoof of ‘The Da Vinci Code, Ken Done bashing has become a national pastime. 

Images: (Warhol)

(Ken Done’s Art Car)