What a pisser! Lazy post. Sorry.

7 01 2013
Image

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’. Image via tate.org.

More to come on more things. Soon. I promise. In the meantime, here’s a link to an article I wrote for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Expertise Goes Down the Drain’. Hope it’s good for what ails ye. Highlight for me? It gave the editors an excuse to publish a gigantic urinal across two pages in the Insight section of the paper.

Advertisements




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 http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw)





Nothing new under the sun: lessons in appropriation 101

16 04 2010

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.

Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from  a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?

The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.

The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of  the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.

Sherrie Levine.jpg

In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.

(images: Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, via: http://www.tcf.ua.edu; Sherrie Levine, ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, copyright Sherrie Levine, via: www.artsjournal.com)





Appropriate this: Artists’ intellectual property rights through the Looking Glass

7 04 2009

I’d really like to hear Sherrie Levine’s take on this one. Or Marcel Duchamp’s, for that matter.

Everyone’s favourite poster-maker, Shepard Fairey, was responsible for one of the more enduring images from the 2008 election campaign – the Obama Hope poster, pictured at left. Fairey used a photograph taken by an Associated Press (AP) photographer, Manny Garcia, as the basis for his artwork. AP alleged copyright infringement. Fairey retorted: “Fair Use!”.

That legal fracas is still to be resolved. But, ironically, it seems that Mr. Fairey may be surprisingly thin-skinned when other artists dare to appropriate his own work. In April 2008, Fairey’s lawyers threatened an artist by the name of Baxter Orr with legal action after Orr appropriated one of Fairey’s best-known works, Obey Giant, embellishing Andre the Giant’s face (the subject of Fairey’s work) with a face mask and a new title: Protect Yourself.

This isn’t the only case where Fairey seems to have been more inclined to dish it out than to cop it on the chin. According to Gawker, Fairey’s legal eagles landed a cease and desist letter on a Steelers fan in Pittsburgh who dared to sell little kewpie-doll Steeler mascots using the phrase “Obey Steeler Baby”. 

Fair use as an exception to copyright law exists for a reason. And a very good one at that. Without appropriation, whether informal or deliberate, a good swag of the art produced during the 20th century would have been illegal. And for a reason as mundane as trademark infringement. Appropriation in one form or another has been going on since our earliest ancestors began daubing on their cave walls.  It seems highly inappropriate to mess with it.

 

 

Shepard Fairey, ‘Obey Giant’; [right] Baxter Orr, ‘Protect Yourself’.”]pols_feature18.jpg

Images: Fairey ‘Obama Hope’ poster – Wikipedia; Steelerbaby – Gawker; ‘Obey Giant’, and  Baxter Orr’s ‘Protect Yourself’ – The Boston Globe