Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Changing Etiquette of Theft

David Apatoff in Illustration Art.

Lisa Congdon, a west coast illustrator, was outraged to discover that her art had been used without her permission by a corporation, Cody Foster Inc., for its line of Christmas ornaments. The illustrator complained that the stolen art was "100% mine" and launched a publicity campaign attacking the plagiarism of her work:

However, during her publicity campaign it was discovered that the illustrator herself had "borrowed" someone else's copyrighted work to make her illustrations.

Her double standard is consistent with the highest traditions set by today's master artists. Jeff Koons repeatedly "borrowed" other people's images to create his masterpieces, but when he discovered someone borrowing from him, he became indignant and sued for copyright infringement. 

 Similarly, Andy Warhol shamelessly borrowed images from others, but the Andy Warhol Foundation aggressively pursues anyone who attempts to copy Warhol's copies.

Apparently, the part of the human brain responsible for recognizing irony has atrophied as a result of exposure to contemporary art over the past 50 years.

In the 1960s, Pop artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol regularly used images by other artists but slept soundly at night believing that, although their images looked nearly identical, the underlying "concept" was different.

Lichtenstein explained why his version (on the right) is not a copy: "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word...."

Since the 1960s, the language of borrowing has become more glib, even as borrowing has become more blatant. The Museum of Modern Art sniffs,

The recontextualization of familiar images from television, film and advertising suggests that the meaning of those images might not be intrinsic and unchanging but rather culturally constructed and context specific.

In addition to "recontextualization," borrowing has been justified as repurposing, transformative use, sampling, augmentation, or sometimes just plain old appropriation art.

In such a complex world, no wonder the etiquette of borrowing has become confusing.

There used to be a natural defense against appropriation; art required technical skill, and if you couldn't paint like Caravaggio, you couldn't appropriate his work. But in recent decades the role of technical skill has diminished while the ease of mechanical copying has increased. The barricades against appropriation quickly fell, along with the old moral prejudices against it.

Today information technology indiscriminately captures vast oceans of images; it delivers them to us instantly from anywhere in the world, and empowers the least talented among us to duplicate them, alter them and even animate them in ways that the original artist would never permit. 

Our attitude toward these pictures has changed because Google Images, Tumblr and Instagram have led many to believe that untethered images buzz around randomly in nature, like subatomic particles. Today we seem to spend more time managing and tweaking pre-existing images than we spend creating important new ones.

In fact, a growing number of artists manage streams of information the way previous generations of artists managed pigment on a palette. Data is becoming the raw stuff of art, and the low challenge for the artist is to manage that data with just a little more taste and style than a search engine or data mining software might manage it.

The etiquette of borrowing will continue its radical transformation and it will be interesting to see where it ends up. But no matter what happens, one universal principle is likely to remain unchanged: it will always be less of a crime for fine artists to steal from "commercial" or "low" artists (such as illustrators, product label designers and comic strip artists). 

 The Museum of Modern Art celebrates this phenomenon as "appropriated images from popular media and culture." Some things just don't change.

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