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Stealing from the Unknown

“Since the early nineties, an ever increasing number of artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works; more and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products. This art of postproduction seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, which is characterised by an increase in the supply of works and the art world’s annexation of forms ignored or disdained until now.” ¹

Post-production can be traced back to Duchamp’s urinal, and also was widely used in Pop art, for example by Roy Lichtenstein. In days before the luxury of the internet, Lichtenstein found his inspiration in graphic novels and comic books. He made copies which were often identical to the originals, but scaled up and painted  in slightly different colours. The works which he copied were often made by artists who weren’t even credited within the comics, which in my opinion, seems even more of a taboo. Perhaps he thought that he would get away with stealing from the unknown, and although the artists identities have since come to light, Lichtenstein would be having the last laugh from the millions which he made from copying these works.
Although I like some of Lichtenstein’s pieces, I now hesitate to call them his, as I feel that he has overstepped the mark by copying too directly, and not altering the pieces enough, or even at all in many cases.  Although Duchamp did not make his urinal, I think that his work was more conceptual, so I don’t really have an issue with him using it, whereas I feel that Lichtenstein was plagiarising.

An image from the comic All-American Men of War (no.89) by unaccredited artist Irv Novak
An image from the comic All-American Men of War (no.89) by unaccredited artist Irv Novak

One of Lichtenstein’s most famous works, “Whaam!” (1963)
One of Lichtenstein’s most famous works, “Whaam!” (1963)

 The advantage of the internet

Remembering back to when I was first an Illustration student in the 1990s, back in the days when we never knew how to use the internet or really had access to it, I had to take inspiration from library books, often sketching out bits and pieces before altering them significantly, or relying on photographic reference. We also were never given the opportunity to use computers, so tools like Photoshop were never there to help us. It was really hard, and depending where you lived you may not have had much access to contemporary visual arts, or been able to keep abreast of great artists of the day who might inspire you significantly. Art colleges often churned out a similar style, and no one really stood out from the crowd with anything quirky or innovative.
I feel really privileged to be a student now, in this era when everything is available by the touch of a button. I think that the access to information and visual images is endless and don’t know how I ever managed without it. Social media sites such as Pinterest give anyone inspiration, but also hold the risk of people copying your work or claiming ownership of it.   I think that to be a contemporary artist today absolutely requires us to absorb the world around us, both through direct experience, and the internet, social media etc.  The internet is a valuable tool to aid the artist, it helps us get over our creative blocks by triggering ideas and inspirations from other artists. It also means that we can research topical themes much more easily, and the use of Photoshop can allow us to manipulate ready-made images or logos/branding etc. to create ironic, comical or uncomfortable statements.  I think that the use of the internet has created a type of art appropriate for the 21st century, where everything from shopping, dating and banking is done online, and people hear what’s going on in the world via their Facebook newsfeed. The age of the smartphone “selfie” has also made images much more available, and also calls into question the appropriate use of these images, or the ownership of them.
Do you see the internet as being advantageous to your creativity? If so, how? Can you think of ways that the internet can disadvantage you as an artist, or stifle your creativity?
Links for further reading:
David Barsalou, who spends his time tracking down the originals which Lichtenstein ripped off.
Photography and Fair Use.
¹Bourriaud N.(2002) Postproduction, Culture As Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, New York, Sternberg Press.

Posted by author: Alex Kershaw
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5 thoughts on “Stealing from the Unknown

  • A previous blog on this subject can be found at http://weareoca.com/?s=who+is+afraid+of+appropriation
    In this article the case of Cariou versus Prince was mentioned where the painter Richard Prince had appropriated the photographs of the photographer Patrick Cariou .The latter won the first round of their copyright legal battle. On appeal it was expected that a definitive legal ruling would be established on copyright . However with opinion running in Prince’s favour he and Cariou settled the case with the result that no absolute ruling has been established.

  • I recently produced a print for Printmaking 1 which included a digital photograph (taken by me) of a video screened in an industrial museum. I printed it on tissue and used it as a chine colle element in a print. My tutor really liked the combination of digital image and collagraph but I was uncomfortable with the appropriate image, even at one remove. I am still feeling a bit hot under the collar…I dont think I can justify the use of the image which is unaltered, only cropped and overprinted.

  • Other peoples Images can be used by students for educational purposes. This is part of the fair use or fair dealing clause because it is kept within an educational environment and no money is changing hands. But I understand why you feel uncomfortable, because I do when I think of a still life I made which included a statue of Mickey Mouse . Have I stolen the Disney Corporations intellectual property rights?

    • Jim, the problem arises with students when they publish these copyright images on a blog or otherwise on the internet. Regardless of the educational use, copyright holders argue, successfully it would seem, that as these images are then easily usable by a third party copyright has been breached. Photocopying or scanning or even downloading from the internet and printing a hard copy fits with the ‘one copy for personal study use’ and is ok. My view is that is should be allowable for someone to make a new creative work copying, referencing or whatever, an existing work provided there is no intention to fraudulently claim either your work is by someone else (forgery) or to slain that someone else’s work is by you. So that work like Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans’ photographs would be legitimate for example. However, the law is not clear either here or in the USA and many in the business see it as a supplementary income stream to sue.
      I would have thought that the Disney Corporation, though they hold tight to their intellectual property rights would leave you alone Jim, even if they took the shirt off your back it wouldn’t show up in the years balance sheet…I think you’re ok!

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