Thursday, June 28, 2007

Good Artists Borrow....Great Artists Sell Out?

Two stories making the rounds morphed into some muddled morality tale in my mind this morning (yes, I'm an alliteration slut). First is from London, where an ex-friend of Damien Hirst is claiming the diamond-encrusted skull is a direct rip off of work Hirst saw him doing in the early 90s. Decide for yourself:

From the
London Times [Via]:

Three weeks after [Hirst] artist unveiled his diamond-encrusted skull with a price of £50 million, another artist, John LeKay, has told The Times that he has been producing similar jewel-encrusted skulls since 1993 [above image, left]. He also believes that it is not the only one of his ideas that Hirst has used in some way.

LeKay, who claims to have been a friend of Hirst’s between 1992 and 1994, and who shared a mixed show with him in New York in 1994, said of the diamond skull: “When I heard he was doing it, I felt like I was being punched in the gut. When I saw the image online, I felt that a part of me was in the piece. I was a bit shocked.”

LeKay, a 46-year-old Londoner who lives in New York, created 25 of the skulls in 1993. Inspired by Mayan skulls, he used crystal to make his skull glisten. “When the light hits it, it looks as if it is covered in diamonds,” he said.
The other story I read also deals with the notion of artists profiting from something someone else thinks they shouldn't, but raises a finer point in that the presumed betrayal isn't of a friendship or idea, but rather an ideology. It deals with an anonymous and misguided campaign to highlight the increasing commercialization of street art (aka graffiti). The headline above isn't exactly how I feel about this, mind you, just a lazy attempt at being funny. In addition to splashing paint over existing street art (particularly by artists now showing in galleries), the "Splasher[s]" as the anti-commercial campaigner is/are known are suspected of setting off stink bombs during exhibitions.

The New York Times:

The covert campaign targeting street art began about seven months ago, with blobs of paint that appeared overnight, obscuring murals and wheat-pasted art on walls in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Arcane messages were pasted at the sites, but it was difficult to ask for an explanation. The author was never identified.

Shepard Fairey, whose work has been a target of the splatterings.
Then in November, during a panel discussion on women and graffiti that included a street artist called Swoon, a figure wearing a hooded sweatshirt flung a sheaf of fliers using similar language from a balcony overlooking an auditorium at the Brooklyn Museum. Swoon was among those whose work had previously been struck by paint, and some couldn’t help wondering whether the person who threw the fliers was also the Splasher, as the perpetrator of the paint attacks had come to be known.

Web sites, magazines and newspaper articles reported about the splatterings. Some wondered about the motivation and identity of those responsible, but the Splasher — or Splashers — remained anonymous.

The most recent episodes came this month, in two incidents involving what seemed to be stink bombs lobbed at shows of street artists on the Lower East Side and Dumbo. And some in the art world believe the identify of the Splasher may have been revealed. Last Thursday night James Cooper, 24, was arrested at the Dumbo show after witnesses accused him of attempting to ignite a homemade incendiary device in a metal coffee canister.
The Wooster Collective, who are interviewed for the article, has been covering this and actually broke the story about Cooper last week in this blog post:

One thing seems clear - there are two motivations that have been driving the Splasher. Attention and a jealous desire to sabotage and ruin the work of well known artists who have gained a certain amount of notoriety. It then makes sense that after gaining a ton of press over the last few weeks, that the Splasher would try to take things to another level by not only ruining the artwork on the streets of people like Faile and Shepard, but by getting even more attention for ruining their gallery shows as well. Since it would be all too obvious to walk into an art show and throw paint on the wall, why not then attempt to close down the show by causing a panic?
There are, to my mind, legitimate questions with regards to where one draws the line in supporting such statements. Where does the romanticism that turns a blind eye toward the vandalism aspect of street art turn to criticize of the vandalism of the vandalism? In other words, is one gesture, more pure than the other? And if so why?

And with Hirst's ex-"friend," did he invent decorating skulls? Hardly. Where is the line with regards to standing up for one's rights/copyrights and understanding that it's more or less the only rule left that everything is grist for the mill?

I hesitate to weigh in on these topics, truth be told. But don't let that stop you.

Labels: art criticism


Blogger Adam B. Bell said...

Reminds me of the recent controversy regarding Hirst's butteryfly stain-glass pieces. Turns out another artist - Lori Precious - made almost identical work using butterflies to make stainglass pieces.

Often times the distinctions between influence, appropriation and out right theft are fuzzy.

here are some links

6/28/2007 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

Compare and contrast Mark Rothko chapel ( in Houston Texas as part of the Menil Colleciton ( and the Cleve Gray panels "Threnody" on view now at the Neuberger Museum, From the Press release CLEVE GRAY: THRENODY
June 24, 2007 - September 09, 2007

Created for the opening of the Museum in 1974, Threnody is twenty-eight monumental panels painted by Cleve Gray as a response to the tragedies of the Vietnam war. Cleve Gray described Threnody as fourteen figures joined in a dance of life and death around the room. He envisioned the space as a cathedral; as a place for meditation.

This site-specific cycle of paintings, created for the opening of the Neuberger Museum of Art for its expansive Theater Gallery, was executed between 1972 and 1974. In these twenty-eight monumental panels, Gray responded to the tragedies of the Vietnam War with a dramatic non-representational elegy.

6/28/2007 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants - Isaac Newton.

Not that I love Hirst very much, but John LeKay's designs on the skull is a little bit of hogwash in my view. Science, art and culture is built on the basic foundation of accretion. Take these away using meddlesome lawyers and rules and you have the makings of the end of creativity. Of course there is a difference between a blatant copy and creative accretion and deciding if the art falls on one side or the other itself is an art... More on this later.

6/28/2007 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew Nash said...

Hi Ed
Great post!

I'm not sure if you read "The White Cube" comic, but there was one this week that you might enjoy.

"The White Cube"

6/28/2007 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Lekay may be upset, but how do you think the Mayans feel?

6/28/2007 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

I had a bit about creative freedoms on Art and Percepton some time back... (although from a narrower POV focussed on my paintings).

6/28/2007 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

I've been following the Splasher story with bemusement. While I'm annoyed that he or she has (or they have) defaced some rather nice work, I can't really condemn the vandalism given the context.

The power of "street art" is rooted in its temporality and its populist commitment, to my way of thinking, so whether erased by time, the elements or some over zealous iconoclast, so be it.

My problem or doubt lies more with the Splasher's intent. I'd wager this young guy or gal would all too eagerly leverage their notoriety into a career. With the commercial explosion of "street art" these days, particularly on the left coast, I'd be happily surprised if this person stuck to their stink bombs, puerile though his or her efforts may be.

As for Hirst's diamond skull and the resentful former friend...well, dems da bones, bad pun intended.

6/28/2007 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hmm, I think the dedication to defend these popular works of street art and their artists' easy commodification is exactly what Splasher is rallying against. Though I agree that it'd be a rather fluid transition to "selling out", I would hope Splasher recognizes that his/her/their power comes from defending the initial impetus of street art against the capitalist system. I for one urge them to carry on with their ideological affront. Especially in terms of our current political climate and fear of terrorism, the adoption of terroristic procedures by an artist seems wholly relevant.

6/28/2007 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous The Grocer said...

This "splasher" thing is interesting indeed. After reading bits and pieces of the manifesto, i'd have to agree with your calling it "misguided." It seemed so self-important and over the top - kind of reminded me of HS and early college BS.

I agree with HH (above) in regard to intent. Not only does it smack of leveraging well known artists work to create fame/press/whatever for self - but it's troubling on a different level. It's hard to define what is "good" vandalism and "bad" vandalism.. .BUT... . these artists like Faile, Swoon, Fairey, etc - they're working out a particular artistic vision within the context of the streets. The "splasher" feels like it has more in common with a purely self-motivated obscure polital movement (a misguided one at that!) That could be defined as "art" too.

I'm not making a whole hellovalotta sense here. just my thoughts on the subject. I think it was Solomon who penned the "nothing new under the sun" thing in old ancient days. nobody owns the concept for a jewel encrusted skull... NOBODY :)

on a side note - i saw a photo the other day of a bansky painting on a wall that the owner of the property had protected with some kind of plexiglass.

also, Ed - i love your blog.

6/28/2007 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Houdini said...

It's funny because the ex-friend of Hirst could have come to exactly that conclusion that is now the work of Hirst himself. It isn't stealing, it's having a conversation. Hirst just walked away with the best artwork.

6/28/2007 02:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I don't know about that, maybe LeKay would have walked away with the best if he had the funds, he was using crystals but maybe if he had the means it would have been diamonds.

Well he didn't have Hirst's fame and money, so , yes, Hirst made the better skull. It may be more a matter of means vs money that is spurring LeKay's dismay?!


6/28/2007 03:08:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

Boston had the Longfellow Bridge inundated by a similar vandal like the splasher in the 1990s-- the salt and pepper shakers were splashed with day-glo pink and green streaks for a good while.

Nothing a good sandblasting didn't take care of.

I don't know if sandblasting works on skulls, though.

6/28/2007 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Edward, it seems to me that there are several issues and assumptions at work, here.

The first is the notion that ideas are property, which is not only problematic, but potentially totalitarian, in its extreme consequences. The fact is, ideas are free. It is time, labor and context which create value.

The Hirst thievery example points up the wholly unequal weight applied to context as a means of assigning value; Hirst's skull is Famous and Worth Millions not because it is a Unique Work of Genius, but because many people have gotten together and decided that Damien Hirst is more important than that other dude.

(Which, I might add, is one of the many reasons why Damien Hirst gives me hives, when I bother to consider him at all. The artwork I have seen of his in person seemed to me to lack the unique presence that only brilliant idiosyncrasy of craft, plus depth and transcendence of concept, can bestow; it is merely a blueprint of a not-necessarily-original idea.)

Personally, I do not mind if another artist 'steals my idea,' and indeed, many of them have. I am honored that they thought one of my throwaway comments was worth basing an extended amount of labor upon, and since they were the ones who supplied the effort, they deserve the credit. I merely Blather On.

However, the wanton destruction or suppression of another's artwork in order to draw attention to oneself is exemplary of the most scurrilous manifestations of ego in our society; it is unique only in its directness and extremity. Most of us behave as though, at some level, greatness were a zero sum equation--that another's excellence necessarily diminishes one's own.

This is a Lie which should be scorched from the earth. Persons such as the Splasher ought to be shunned, and given no media attention or commentary whatsoever.

For although I have given away an infinite number of Ideas with insouciant generosity, the day a 'friend' of mine grabbed two dealers, three critics, and a billionaire collector by the arm and forcefully dragged them away from viewing my paintings, was the day I considered purchasing a flamethrower.

6/28/2007 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Bravo, prettylady!

6/28/2007 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anyone read Thomas Mann's "Mario and the Magician?" Who's the artist? Fascinating.

6/28/2007 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

Ideas are important, but sure, once they're out of the bag, there's not much you can do.

In conceptual art, however, the idea's the thing. John LeKay badly misunderstands Hirst's piece if he thinks it has anything to do with skulls or diamonds. Like David said above, skulls in art go back to the ancients.

Hirst's concept was: "Let's make a $100m object."

He could have made a skull, a cross, a golden calf, a gold-plated autopsy set, a solid platinum pharmacy bottle with diamonds shaped like pills, or any host of other things that would have been in keeping with his aesthetic and conceptual idiom, and still met the real goal of making a $100m object. He's young. He may yet do one or more of these things.

John LeKay's misunderstanding of this crucial point might be the reason we're reading about him on page 90 instead of on page 1.

P.S. I'm assuming everyone's seen For the Laugh of God by now. Now that's art!

6/28/2007 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I apologize because I do not recall whose words these are, but the quote goes something like this:

“There are two currents in art, one rich and conspicuous, the other poor and underground: the former has always ingested the latter as needed”.

I have always wished that some art historian would start digging to find such instances.

The fact is, if you already have the public eye, you can borrow or steal any unknown person’s idea, and you will go down in history as being the one who created the brilliant work of art.

6/28/2007 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I heard someone say the best artists are underground. Has anyone else heard that? What do you think that means?

1) the best artists are dead. (a good investment/you dont have to deal with the fucking artists ego).

2) The best artists are unknown to a wide audience. (you can corner the market).

3) The best artist are those that eschew the limelight. (you can steal the ideas and market them where the artist will never have a clue they are being mined - i.e. interstellar space).


"It isn't stealing, it's having a conversation."

Bingo. Some people call that context.

"Hirst just walked away with the best artwork."

Thats ironic, right? Because from a conceptual point of view its as dumb as it gets, and it gets about as dumb as tiling and grouting a painting.


also, if i had a dollar for every idea i had and then, later, saw someone else get credit and acclaim for (because they did it), id have enough for another beer. But thats just the ones i can name off the top of my head. Am I depressed? No, not really. I just wish I could kik azzz, you know?

But usually I come up with an idea and then realize that documented art history allready has a name and a face for my idea. that sucks. Artists used to be a ble to reinvent the wheel, but now you have to kick azzzzzz.

Like the splasher. Stink bombs! Motherfucker is great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
i dont care if they capitolize on it - because really, where else is there? mars?

transcend Motherfuckers!!!!!!

6/29/2007 01:23:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

i meqan tony shafrazzi did the guernica dealio, but that was ages ago and I forget why he did it, probaly becaus enobody talked about it ever, not even when I moved to ny, and Im not even sure why I know, except I do.

ANd Lorie precocious is not he first to make butterfly collage, so thats bogus, except for the part that Damien knew, which he almost undoubtedly did, unless his psycophantic legion of helpers and hangerss on gave him a really bad case of emporer's new clothes, which is possible but maybe he knew that too.

It like peeling a really big swarovsky onion or something. Ever play boggle? Me too.

6/29/2007 01:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I like about Hirst is that he does what we all really want to do. Not save art or the world, but to dominate. To trample other artists to dust with a dominant brand/style. Thats why people applaud his work. And his whining exfriend perhaps should rethink his own work.

6/29/2007 08:10:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I have this time-travel fantasy, where I show up in 1962 with a full catalog of Beatles songs. Anyone else have that one?

6/29/2007 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mine is just the boring old winning lottery numbers version of the time machine fantasy.


6/29/2007 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous derek said...

Well, I have to say that there has been a whole lot of "skull play" this past year. So much so that I had to mention it in my last letter in Daily Constitutional. It is no secret phenomenon that trends in the art world are absorbed faster than a Long Island accent, and Damien happens to be in a position where he is capable of making a fleeting trend historical.

I have to hand it to Damien for repeatedly kicking dirt in the face of tradition, someone has to do it. LeKay should realize, as I am sure he does, that exhibition is 3/5 of the law, regardless of integrity...

6/29/2007 06:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first saw David Altmejd's work (at Artist's Space, I think) I actually thought of Lekay right off the bat - with all the crystalline stuff on skulls in vitrines, on pedestals, etc.

6/30/2007 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger the expat/pissedpoet said...

How will you have your tedium, rare or medium?

7/01/2007 08:47:00 AM  
Blogger Houdini said...

At least, Hirst doesn't whine about it. He might not be the brightest, but he's got the balls. Fuck off with someone stealing your work.

Like Zip, I've seen my ideas already been done or sometimes several months later. You don't hunt down that artist, even if he's underground. You make art and stop fucking around.

7/04/2007 08:40:00 AM  

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