Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Appropriation Art Again

Shepard Fairey had a solo art exhibit in LA in December. Among those commenting on the exhibit was Mark Vallen, who with the help of other artists, published online a lengthy, fairly savage attack on Fairey's unattributed appropriation from a vast number of sources. Vallen provides side by side comparisons and detailed discussions of each piece. Vallen's article is noteworthy in a number of respects: it represents one group of artists challenging another artist, and it sets out some thoughts on what he thinks represents genuine appropriation art from mere plagiarism. I imagine not all will agree with Vallen's approach, but the article is thorough, and would make for an excellent presentation at a seminar or law school class. Here is the link. Hat tip by the way to my favorite online sneaker website, hypebeast.com

15 comments:

Crosbie Fitch said...

It is the ever present threat of copyright infringement that persuades artists not to give attribution to those artists from whom they've appropriated.

Abolish copyright and wholehearted attribution will be given by artists to each other - with pride and gratitude.

silly artists said...

A lot of those example predate modern copyright law. At least one might be the work of the federal government. For many others, I somehow doubt that they obtained the the registration/renewal. So the issue is just a moral one?

People appropriate public domain works for their own private gain all of the time, without attribution. That's part of the benefit.

And, I have no ability to judge the artistic ability of the appropriator, but from my point of view, that is an exceedingly low threshold.

such sweet thunder said...

"For me, the question is not what Fairey’s political allegiances may or may not be, but rather, how his work sets a standard that is ultimately damaging to art and leads to its further dissolution. When a will to plagiarize and a love for self-promotion are the only requirements necessary for becoming an artist, then clearly the arts are in deep trouble."

What a great read. Regardless of whether you agree with Vallen's conclusions, he hits it on the head with the above passage: not only does what constitutes infringement influence creative practices, creative practices influences what constitutes infringement. It's a circle I wish we understood better.

Sarah Joyce said...

The detailed litany from the offended group of artists lays out in a rather obsessive way, some rather superficial arguments. The diatribe is also a bit tedious by the third example. Why does this particular artist, Fairey, warrant such attention? Could it be that Vallens is also an artist who focusses on social commentary? Why is explicitly painting a 'Rambo' poster (as Vallens has done) different than using an already existing image of a 'Rambo' poster. Vallens protests too much. It appears that Vallens is using a tried and true way toward self-promotion. I certainly went to his previously unvisited website.
As the previous writer ('silly artists'?) notes, much of the material appropriated by Fairey is either in the public domain or pre-modern copyright law. This is the point of the public domain - to provide inspiration...to be used. Part of the Vallens argument seems to be that he does not like the way Fairey draws. Vallens also claims copying with very thin reasons. If Fairey had provided attribution in every case would Vallens be satisfied? Obviously not. And, as previously mentioned, Vallens does not provide attribution in his own work. Why isn't Vallens and his group attacking - say... photographers (for example) who don't provide attribution each time they shoot an architect-designed building, a choreographed dance, and every single item of a manufactured landscape. You get my point...nightmare scenario.
It's not the first time a group of artists have spuriously come out against other artists - one of the most recent being CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation) vs the Canadian APPROPRIATION ART COALITION (a large group of artists and art professionals opposing restrictive changes in copyright legislation). After heated arguments CARFAC quietly removed an ill-conceived legal argument from their website urging artists to withdraw from the AAC.
The images Fairey draws from (I can see none that are actually taken verbatim) are necessary to his work and his project. If Fairey used images that were not recognizable the project would become an entirely different one. The arguments Vallens uses are fallacious, hypocritical and ill-conceived. All art borrows, some of it more explicitly than others. Look at the Vallens work (he wants you to). On the surface, the Vallens group's grasp of contemporary art theory and art history seems lacking. Appropriation is used precisely because the borrowed material is recognizable and already brings with it an emotive, social and political history. Appropriated material immediately moves the viewer in particular ways, toward particular conclusions....for the very fact that it IS obviously familiar and already meaningful. It is one of the reasons appropriation resonates with the viewer. Artists have always been social commentators to a greater or lesser degree. This is part of the value of art, now more than ever. Art should allow, among other things, for social commentary, satire, parody. This is what many contemporary artists are fighting for - free creative speech. The freedom to comment using a contemporary palette. The freedom to make connections. Despite the comments by the Vallens group, appropriation art will remain a valid and historic practice.... enlightening, evocative and challenging. But he knows that.

posterboy said...

As a contributor to the Vallen piece, I must point out that this is not a legal article - it's by practitioners, about the ethical, historical, and practical issues surrounding image "recycling." It's a provocative polemic which seeks to raise as many questions as answers. Please read it all the way through, with comments.

William Patry said...

I thought the piece was valuable precisely because it is not by lawyers, and provides, at least for me, how some artists look at what has been a long-running dispute. part of that goes to what exactly is it that the appropriator has to do in order to make his or her work art, or to convey a message? This has legal consequences too: if courts wish to let appropriators off the hook because they are providing new insights into the work appropriated, what are those new insights and how are they made?

Silly Artists said...

I too have no problem with the content not being legally oriented, but I want to know what the real objection is here.

If it's merely moral, then this is a go nowhere piece. If an author using/reusing believes it's immoral to not attribute each piece then that artist is going to be awfully busing attributing the source for each character, theme, idea, image, color, technique and/or concept that they didn't come up on their own.

If the objection is whether the work is transformative enough to avoid attribution and be originally artistic, well that seems like a VERY low bar, akin to the originality bar in copyright law, since anything too high would swallow up most of the art world. Moreover, in my humble opinion, almost nothing on that site is a direct copy without some change, even if it is to give it a different feel (I always though there was a certain irony in adding complex political imagery to a t-shirt).

However, as some of the subsequent comments to the site suggest, if the issue is that Fairey is claiming copyright in his images, well that is certainly a legal issue. And it's one that courts have addressed in the past vis-a-vis other users of the same public domain work. The most obvious answer is of course he can claim copyright (or potentially a trademark) in his new works even if they reuse things from the public domain.

I'm posting under the pseudonym "silly artists" because that's exactly how this argument comes across, a silly dispute among artists about what makes art and who can claim to be an artist.

William Patry said...

The issue of attribution too is an ancient one. Those who study the early Venetian practices think that artists like Durer were limited to stopping copying without attribution. And in the literary field, even DeQuincy, who accused others of plagiarism, did not consider it plagiarism if the copying was without attribution so long as people would know the source of the copying anyway.

Sily said...

There are people that study the early Venetian practices of attribution... *eyes glaze over*

Just kidding.

William Patry said...

Silly, to each their own.

Anonymous said...

Fairley's use of the old works borders on parody where an author is allowed to use enough of the old work to bring it to trigger it in the viewers mind. Since his works are critical of old military propaganda posters and signs, the copyright issues become less complicated.

William Patry said...

Anonymous, where do you see the parodic element? This is where law and art collide: if an artist defendant claims parody in an infringement action, it is up to the judge or the jury to decide if there is a parody in the legal sense, so its a nice question whether the artist definition of that term and the legal one coincide

Kiss said...

I found this blog entry doing research about Appropriation Art. I actually found an interesting post on the Myartspace Blog as well. What are your thoughts on it? I put their blog url in the url space. The post in question is at the top of the blog at this time.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the work that Shepard Fairey 'references', as he puts it, is within his right to do so. But he HAS infringed on the copyright of other artists. He admits to it in at least one interview where, after being exposed by the Vallen piece, he acknowledges that he used the Rene Mederos poster knowing that it was protected by copyright because he did not think he could contact the artist. He did not think it would matter. So Shepard is either very stupid or one must ask how many other works by less known artists he has used. In the case of Mederos it is not parody because in reality not many people know about his work. Using Warhol images would be parody. Using a works by an artist from Cuba who is barely known of in the US is not. Shepard has also mentioned that when a "bust" happens, meaning being caught for infringment, he hopes that it is a "good bust" as in no legal action. He has also said that a lot of the people he has infringed upon end up working with him. Look at his Mother Jones interview for a start on learning how shady this artist is. He goes as far as to say that he should not be questioned because he has raised so much money for charity.

Anonymous said...

Yeahhhhhh lets get rid of copyright laws so that artists like Shepard can use all of our work without risk of legal action. What a STUPID idea! I would not want someone like Shepard Fairey to put a price tag on MY ART after MINOR CHANGES whether he gives me credit or not. The guy is not a revolutionary. He is a capitalist and a puppy of Yosi Sargent. Shepard has become what he once stood against.