Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Appropriate Appropriation

Short on time today, so I'll use the fact that Hungry Hyaena did a much better job of writing about these than I could have to point you to his brilliant post (thesis actually) on two articles in the February's Harpers on some very sophisticated thinking on art and appropriation. An artist we're working with had kindly sent me both articles in the mail (thanks!), and I was planning to blog on them, but after reading HH's amazing take, I'm not sure I have anything of substance to add.

One of the articles is co-written by the trailblazing art blogger and painter Joy Garnett, whose work is sourced from images in the media. Her co-writer is the photojournalist Susan Meiselas, whose iconic image of a man tossing a molotov cocktail Joy used as the basis of a painting in her "Riot" series. Both artists offer a compeling arugment for their stance on appropriate appropriation, and although in general I side with Joy's take, I will note that I'm struggling with what I suspect will be a bias toward Susan's argument among the general public because they can relate more easily to the danger photojournalists place themselves in to get such images than they can with the struggle a studio artist goes through to break new ground. I know that's irrelevant to the intellectual argument at hand, but I was struck by the appeal in Susan's argument to the nobility of something bigger than herself (a slightly manipulative appeal, I'll note, given that there is some opportunistic sugar-coating about the Sandinistas she offers in her short history), but a compelling appeal for those who may not understand the heroics of taking on all of art history (and oneself) with just a brush and boldness.

The other article is just as compelling, but alas, I'm out of time...read Hungry Hyaena's take. Again it's wonderful


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intention is something that is not always considered in visual work. One needs to distinguish appropriation about appropriation (Sherrie Levine) and appropriation as a means to breaking in to new form and multiple layers of meaning (iconic emotion in the case of Joy Garnett). In general, I would say the tool is deemed inauthentic, and probably as "cheating." But, the question is, how can anything be authentic in these lingering postmodern times. And at the same time, isn't that argument getting boring?

1/23/2007 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

I just read the Harper's article. Loved it. I pretty much agree with him, that, people, why can't we just all share? He seemed to be arguing for tradition, in a funny way, and against anything new. He believes that there is nothing new, literally, which is fine as rhetoric but depressing if he means it. It's almost a conservative's argument.

Belying this, he says in one part of the essay that the point of doing culture is to expand the world, with which I heartily agree. That means bringing something new to it. What he doesn't talk about is how important originality is. Sherrie Levine et al.'s appropriation in the 80s was stunningly original, for example, and he is duly capitalizing on it.

1/23/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Anonymous joy said...

hi ed,
thanks so much for your post. Your suspicions about the general public are spot-on, not to mention some artists who ought to know better...

I'd like to add something: I am not convinced by the argument made by Susan and others, that a shift in context necessarily signals a "betrayal" of the original -- how an appropriation could accomplish such a betrayal, even intentionally, I find a bit mysterious. The existence of multiple versions or spin-offs doesn't obliterate or cancel-out or undermine the original, as is feared. A multiplicity of appropriations and uses is a testament to that original document's power, if anything. Surely there is room in this world for multiple meanings and alternative readings -- we need to protect the space where we may freely interpret, in our culture...

Most important perhaps, is that Susan's position in this argument dismisses the importance of the viewer, and that which the viewer brings to the table; it imposes a "correct" reading. But when an image, such as her photograph of the Molotov thrower, touches a chord beyond its originally intended frame, and does so spontaneously across the spectrum of a population, and across decades (as in this case), I would say that signals something important that she chooses to ignore.

When you try to act as the "custodian of meaning" (as one lawyer aptly put it) you end up closing off the potential for new readings, alternate meanings, interpretations, reverberations. What you are, in effect, saying as the author, is that only the original, only your imposed context and intentions should count. For some of us, that actually characterizes the real "betrayal"... it is a nod to authoritarianism, quite literally!

all best,

1/23/2007 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

I just reread the Joy-Susan articles. I was struck by the way Susan capitulated on most of the points people have been making and did not in the end sue or try to claim a fee. Borrowing is the dominant mode today. What's the fuss? Even Susan tacitly agrees.

Susan said she wanted to register a "protest" and that it was "central" to her work to "respect the invividuality" of her subjects, in this case Pablo Arauz. I think this last is a laudable attitude for a photographer, in theory, anyway. But once the photo of Arauz was no longer a news item, that is, after a few months, the picture gradually became, in my eyes, anyway, both a symbol and a more purely aesthetic object. In other words, a really really good news pictures become art after a year or two--if they're good enough. Or they become potent political symbols if they present a T-shirtable silohoutte, as Susan's image certainly does.

I think this is the crux of it. And Susan seems a little doctrinairre about remaining true to the individual if she doesn't see this. After all, her photo book was published not as news, maybe partly as history, but mostly as an object of contemplation and delectation. Art, in other words. And if Susan wanted to be true to Pablo's individuality, why did she take this particular picture? It says nothing about an indivudual person and a lot about the dash and glamor of violence, presumably righteous violence. But violence. And Joy picked it to appropriate because it was graphically strong and simple, it's message "obvious" and practically archetypal. Indeed, her message could be that images are inherently ambiguous.

And part of the point, a little time-worn by now, of appropriating an image in the first place is to make the points Susan makes. Employing it's special irony, appropriation says, "Look, I can take any image and twist it to my own use. Images are easilty divorced from their contexts, an evil state of modern life. Repent, sinners!" In other words, radical appropriation, in it's purest '80s-Sherrie Levine form moralizes just the way Susan does about Pablo, albeit obliquely and with irony. So like typical factionalized leftists, Susan and Joy are on the same side!

1/23/2007 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous bnon said...

PS Please forgive all the typos in the above. I got excited!

1/23/2007 03:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Poppadum said...

Ok, my take:

There is nearly nothing wrong with the action of Joy Garnett, and any judge would be stupid to fall for Susan's claim, because the work of Garnett is a depiction of what he saw on the net and was made by hand. It's simply the right of an artist to depict the reality that he sees. The painting IS NOT the photograph. Just use a microscope and compare. These are two very different works.

The reason why I say nearly, it's that it is the responsability of the artist to know his source, when he re-paints a piece of media, and to mention it somewhere in bracket below the work. Or in the press release or something. Sample ok, but point out to what you sample, that's just being polite.

On another hand, I think the worst appropriation here, is of the rebel himself. Many people get caught on photographs like this and maybe never wanted their face to travel the world or be put on youtube.

I really think the copying of objects is no big deal compared with the right of people to their intimacy. In Chelsea once I had someone turn at me and take a quick photograph and walked fast. I bet she wanted to feature me in the "WRONG" or "DON'T" section of fashion in the Vice magazine. I hate when people do this, It's nasty. Let me dress the hell I want. Let me be ugly. But leave me alone.

I think Susan is pretty bold to call her lawyers considering the type of work she does, which is stealing bits from reality and make it her own.


Cedric Poppadum

1/23/2007 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Thanks for the nod, Edward. The Harper's articles excited me, obviously, and I'm still chewing on them. Copyright is a complex issue, one that requires some degree of sympathy for all perspectives.

For example, I would second Joy's comment above, while simultaneously calling for artists to seek out the original context/significance if it isn't already known. To be sure, this isn't easy, and I've been guilty of failing to do more often than I'd like to admit. I guess I'm just getting a little more conservative on that count, as I'm a staunch proponent of generalism over specialization (but that's another conversation).

It is a choice, though, and the burden of responsible borrowing should rest on the individual artist. In a litigious society, that's an awful lot to ask.

1/23/2007 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

hi jg,

we love you

1/23/2007 09:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>one that requires some degree of >>>sympathy for all perspectives.

I do not agree to the limit where you need laws and they must be firms before people start abusing them.

Some judge got to say "No Susan, he painted part of your subject to do something else with it, that's not copyright infringement." Period.

If we are not thorough with law then people abuse of it. Gee...Warhol silkscreen-painted journal images directly on canvas, that work above was done by hand. I don't even understand why we are questioning it.

Protectors already tried to stop chinese for painting replicas of famous paintings but they couldn't, because the paintings were done by hand and sold as replicas. The sellers never pretended to sell anything but cheap replicas.

Problem dealt with. Be with your time.


Cedric Pompadour

1/23/2007 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous joy said...

(hey bambino! 'tis mutual)

promise me, everyone, you'll read the Lethem piece in Feb. Harper's if you haven't already because it "says it all" and more, and will make you burst laughing.

1/24/2007 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I must second Joy on the Lethem piece. I'm not overstating the case when I say I feel it's one of the most important works of criticism I've read on contemporary art, ever.

1/24/2007 07:58:00 AM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Agreed regarding the Lethem piece. It's a tremendous bit of criticism and, importantly, it's a collage/pastiche itself; almost all of the content is cribbed from other writers (credited at the close). It's brilliant and, as Joy mentioned, funny.

Cedric, while I think your arguments (in your second comment) reduce the complexity of the debate, I essentially agree with you. Having said that, I stand by my "sympathy" remark. There are cases where the law serves good purpose and the legislation's history is fascinating. Sure, "be with your time," but copyright doesn't only affect fine art; a reshaping of the law - which I support - will necessarily by nuanced. You can't just sweep it all aside. That's unreasonable and not at all pragmatic.

1/24/2007 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey cedric, joy is a woman

1/25/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger pshambroom said...

The media (including bloggers) covering this leave out an important part when they tell the story:
"...and, after the painting was displayed in a New York art gallery (and was featured on the exhibition's announcement), Garnett received a letter from Meiselas's lawyer informing the painter that she was "sailing under the flag of piracy."
Well before she heard from the lawyer she was notified by an acquaintance (me) of the source of her Molotov image and politely urged to contact Meiselas to discuss the matter and come to some understanding. She chose to ignore this and pretend she had been ambushed. Why? Maybe because Garnett has gotten much more attention for her "crusade" against another artist than she ever would have received for her art alone.
Regarding Lethem's idea "..For a car or a handbag, once stolen, no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of 'intellectual property' leaves the original untouched."- Stealing of copyrighted material does indeed diminish it's value to the artist that created it. It hurts her ability to make a living from her art. Yes, there is a discussion to be had of fair use and appropriation for valid purposes, but this was not of them. Copyright laws may protect Warner Bros. and Sony, but they also protect you and me. The well-meaning creative people supporting Garnett should keep in mind that without intellectual property laws the only people making art will be hobbyists and trust-fund kids. This whole episode is not a case of an innocent artist fighting the corporate powers trying to crush her, it is a case of one artist PURPOSEFULLY stealing from another and then portraying herself as a victim. "Fight the power", indeed!

-Paul Shambroom

2/18/2007 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger friknidjit said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/24/2007 07:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It hurts her ability to make a living from her art."


2/24/2007 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger pshambroom said...

Joy's painting by itself probably wouldn't have had any direct effect on Meiselas's income (especially because few people would have paid any attention to the painting if not for this controversy). Do you steal fruit from the corner market because a missing apple or two won't hurt the owner? It's the general principal of intellectual property that enables artists to make a living from their creations. Not just photographers but all visual artists, musicians, etc. If anyone can use and sell your images as if they were their own, the images lose any value to you. Money is not the motivation behind any artist I know, but it is the measuure of value in our society. If what you make is worth nothing, than by all means give it away! Joy's painting didn't add any comment ot twist to the original photograph, it was just a reproduction in paint of the main part of it. By her own admission, the paintings were not comments on approriation (a la Sherrie Levine.) Other figurative painters go out in the world and make their own refererence photographs or get permission to use existing ones, Joy apparently found it easier to sit in front of her computer.

-Paul Shambroom

2/25/2007 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a photograph steals ...your soul...

2/25/2007 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Sonya said...

paul, i was wondering if you could clarify some things for me. first of all, you make these enormous, blanketed statements about what garnett did without actually explaining or proving them, like "It hurts Meiselas' ability to make a living from her art," "Yes, there is a discussion to be had of fair use and appropriation for valid purposes, but this was not of them," "people supporting Garnett should keep in mind that without intellectual property laws the only people making art will be hobbyists and trust-fund kids." ok, these are the old tired arguments people fall back on in all cases involving fair use/open source/copyright, so PROVE THEM. at least TRY. i guess i was hoping you would support your argument even if you're absolutely sure of your own logic, because not all of us are so sure.

when someone on the blog questioned you, you focused on the idea that garnett got "undue attention" for the controversy and that otherwise no one would have noticed her art (which seems kind of ridiculous because the art market clearly hinges upon certain external tactics, chance and promotion that exert influence upon sellability, commodification, etc, most of which also depend on clearly false, constructed principles of "originality" anyway, and anyone privy to the circumstances surrounding which art gets "attention" and which art doesn't knows that it is very much a matter of right place, right time, right connection, or apt capitalization on certain "trend" in certain zeitgeist... let's not even start trying to categorize how or where art "merits" commercial attention or not.)
i'm also wondering, how is it especially relevant to the issues at hand to attack garnett's work for being uninteresting and therefore getting "undue" attention? does that change whether or not her painting of meiselas' photograph constitutes fair use? or do you just feel the need to bolster your arguments with venomous yet topically irrelevant opinions?

the only thing you really go into further is the idea that the "general principle of intellectual property enables artists to make a living from their creations," which you explain by elaborating that "if anyone can use and sell your images as if they were their own, the images lose any value to you."

the general principle thing seems true, yeah, at least in the current construction of art economy, which privileges property over performance as a commodity.
but HOW can you claim that the image itself is the only thing that matters, rather than the style and medium used in the art? that just seems insane. what art collector would buy a painting if what he/she actually wanted were a photograph? garnett's painting isn't claiming to be the original photograph. so what if she isn't making some blatantly obvious "comment" or "twist" on the photograph's image? your choice of words is amusing there. does something need to be overly obvious, cheeky and self-referential to be transformative?

also, did it ever occur to you that part of garnett's art is her process of finding source images on the internet before she transforms them? when you say that "other figurative painters go out into the world and make their own reference photographs," you seem to fundamentally lack an understanding of the "objet trouvé" element of her work.

sorry, i just have one more thing to say about the cutesy flourish-ending to your last post about joy "finding it easier to sit in front of her computer." in case you haven't been paying attention, "sitting in front of one's computer" has become an incredibly motivated and profound act... depending on what you're doing. i guess if you're just engaging in some unsupported blog-bashing, it's pretty lame. otherwise, what happens within the space of the internet can be pretty revolutionary, wouldn't you agree?

3/24/2007 02:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sonia et al,
it seems to me that mr. pshambroom doesn't understand much about art and how it is made (including, alas, his own!). how unfortunate, for I think he is not alone in his delusions of authenticity; his assumptions seem quite generic and conventional: naive. does he think perhaps that clicking the shutter doesn't entail a kind of "stealing" as he defines it? very strange, this line of reasoning, especially coming from a photographer, one who is truly dependent on the pre-existance of the world around them for sourcing their work -- wow, just consider how many photographers are out there "copying" the world at large... do they all act as though they pulled the image out of their ass or received it directly from the godhead? also, the comparison he makes above, that appropriating the photo for a painting is like stealing a piece of fruit -- this is exactly the example used (usually when talking about digital copying, cf: Lessig's "Free Culture", etc etc) to demonstrate how people get it wrong: appropriating an image or downloading a song are not at all like stealing a piece of fruit, precisely because it doesn't prevent anyone else from doing the same, or from enjoying the "original". thank you, mr pshambroom, for illustrating exactly how erroneous your claims are. I wish people would examine their own work and at least read up a bit before attacking others' methodologies.

p.krishnan, law intern

4/23/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous dancing with myself said...

Just a thought:
I believe that an aesthetic act is a special sort of conversation. If one simply "takes" without an acknowledgement and/or exchange of meaning, it suggests at best an indifference to the source and a limiting of the potential richness of the aesthetic act.
Hogging the conversation is ultimately uninteresting, even if the the thing in question has an appeal not primarily aesthetic (e.g. sensationalism). Art World "realities" aside, the political/legal stakes of the issue here detract from the aesthetic justification.

4/27/2007 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if bob dylan acknowledged all his influences you'd end up with a grocery list instead of music. I hope you like lists. (zzzzz)

4/29/2007 07:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's folks who want acknowledgment who are hogging the conversation !

4/29/2007 07:21:00 PM  

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