Who's Afraid of Appropriation?
This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
The OCA’s Level 6 course on Professional Practice will, when its launched, have much to say about copyright. Ever since William Hogarth was instrumental in encouraging the formulation of the ‘Statute of Ann’(1710), writers, artists and musicians have had their creative work protected from theft and piracy. This Statute, the very first copyright law, protected them from having their work stolen, ‘to their very Detriment and too often to the Ruination of them and their families.’ The principal of an artists’ right to ownership of their work was firmly established from then on.
Except, of course,that protecting intellectual copyright seems to be an ongoing battle and the threats are getting worse now, with the advent of the Internet and the assumption by a younger generation that everything and anything found on the Web is free for all to take and use. In the realm of education, students are, of course, enjoined not to plagiarise, to acknowledge sources, to use the Harvard Referencing System and when taking images from the Bridgeman Education Resource, not to display it on publically accessible sites. These are the accepted rules, however some artists, especially those of a Dadaist persuasion, are particularly keen on the artistic concept of ‘appropriation’.
A long list of artists including luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Damian Hirst , Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Glen Brown and Richard Prince , are particularly good at using other peoples images, without permission and have often ending up in court as a result. The defence of ‘fair use’ is often sited, a defence that depends on the amount of transformation that has occurred between the original and the new work. The works of photographers and film makers is the most appropriated these days and naturally they are particularly keen to protect their intellectual property rights, aware of the potential value of an image in a world hungry for novelty. There are now organisations that look out for copyright infringements and will prosecute on an artist’s behalf. For example,the case of Cariou v Prince is currently making its way through the courts. Patrick Cariou is a photographer who published a book on Rastafarian culture called ‘Yes Rasta ‘. Artist Richard Prince took 40 of his photographs, without permission, blew them up, stuck them on canvas and added some painted elements. Cariou took him to court because the transformative element in the paintings was considered minimal, and won the case. Richard Prince has appealed and when the result is made known it is expected to seriously affect the activities of such ‘appropriation’ artists and the galleries that show or sell their work.
This February, the Tate Modern will host a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition; he is an artist who consistently used comic book art as source material. This exhibition will be much loved by adolescence both old and young and those held in thrall to this popular form of imagery. This will be a major retrospective of his work showing not only his well know Pop Art paintings but also his later work which revisits 20th Century art styles from Post-Impressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism all done in his signature style of black outlines filled in with bright colours and Ben Day dots. Although Roy Lichtenstein copied other artist’s creative work he never seemed to have been charged with copyright violation. At least 140 of his paintings were lifted from comic books (see David Basolou’s blog ‘Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein’) and the names of the original artists such as Tony Abruzzo, Russ Jeath, Ross Andre, John Romita, Joe Kubert and Milt Kaniff are never credited. It may have been that in the early Sixties, the art world was a much smaller place with a different audience from that which read comic books. Commercial art was thought of as disposable and transient, with little intrinsic artistic value and the artists who drew the pictures or designed the packaging were often anonymous. High art was what serious artists did and Lichtenstein’s paintings at first did not sell for great sums of money, their future value not anticipated at the time. DC Comics who owned the copyright probably did not see any financial advantage in getting involved in a court case or did not think it advantageous to do so. It is also hard to understand why the Disney corporation did not object to Lichtenstein’s use of Mickey Mouse in his early (1961) painting ‘Mickey I’ve caught a big one’, currently in Washington’s National gallery of Art. These days the Disney Corporation jealously guards it intellectual property rights and artists stay well clear of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and his cartoon chums.
Is it not time that fine artists acknowledge the sources of their creative work especially when it is borrowed, stolen, lifted or in some other way ‘appropriated’ from a source not their own. And while they are at it should they not acknowledge the assistants who often make the work for them? I was going to illustrate this blog with a funny cartoon by Chris Madden but quite rightly he would expect a royalty to be paid for Internet usage and, as I doubt the OCA would fork out the cash, I drew my own instead, which I give free of charge with acknowledgement to Chris, who acknowledges Roy, who of course did not acknowledge the original creator Irv Novick (1916-2004).