Good Artists Borrow; Great Artists ... Sue? (Or, Does It Really Matter Who Got There First?)
....OK, so let me be clear this time...the above is ONLY A JOKE (we wouldn't want another "Franco-in-Venice" situation to emerge from this post), but it reflects my first inescapable response to the suit being brought by Jeff Koons against a San Francisco gallery and store and a Toronto manufacturing company for allegedly violating Koons' intellectual property. The Times has the latest on this:
The artist Jeff Koons has developed a distinctive style, and made a lot of money, by appropriating pop-culture imagery and mass-produced objects, from inflatable toys to vacuum cleaners and kitschy greeting cards. Over his three-decade career that approach, while helping to make him famous, has also brought accusations of exploiting other people’s copyrighted images. He has been sued for copyright violation four times, losing three of the cases.OK, so there is no question that a lot of people saw Koon's "Balloon Dog" at the Met and Versailles. How many of them live in San Francisco is a good question, perhaps, but more than that, I have to truly wonder how many people outside the minuscule fraction of the population we call "the art world" would first think of Koons upon seeing these tchotchkes:
In a reversal of roles Mr. Koons is now going after two businesses that his lawyers say have violated his intellectual property rights by producing and selling bookends that resemble his famous “Balloon Dog” sculpture, 10-foot-tall versions of which have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Versailles and acquired by major art collectors. Mr. Koons’s sculpture also comes in a 10 ½-inch version, comparable in size to the bookends.
In late December a lawyer for Mr. Koons, Peter D. Vogl of the firm Jones Day, sent cease-and-desist letters to Park Life, a San Francisco gallery and store that sells the bookends, and Imm-Living, a Toronto company that manufactures them.
Jamie Alexander, a co-owner of Park Life, and Rod Byrnes, a lawyer for Imm-Living, both rejected the idea that the bookends, which are made of painted resin and come in matte colors — unlike Mr. Koons’s reflective “Balloon Dog” — were a copy. The bookends are also slightly less bulbous than the Koons.
[surprisingly blurry image from New York Times]
The manufacturing company that made them insists it "wasn’t familiar with Mr. Koons’s sculpture until it received the letter from his lawyer." And I have to say, I don't know for sure, but I do find that easy to believe.
Now I know just enough about such matters to know an entity with intellectual property to protect has to be vigilant in prosecuting violators lest a history of not doing so be used against them should they later sue. But that's about the extent of my legal knowledge, so I'll turn this thread in a direction much more aligned with my experience.
Far too many times to count in my career, I've had artists feel compelled to tell me that they were doing work like that on exhibition somewhere long before the artist getting attention for it now was doing it. It's human nature, I suppose. And yet for a few it seems to become a mantra. One artist I know has mentioned it about three very distinct bodies of work by three different artists. At a certain point, you'd think they'd take solace in how multifacetedly influential they seem to be and leave it at that.
I know outright theft takes place in the arena of new ideas and styles, but when another artist is doing work like yours and you know they were not before they saw your work, I still feel the only recourse you have is to take away a lesson from the VHS - Betamax war and realize it's all about who fights harder or smarter to win the hearts and minds of the public:
Exactly how and why VHS won the war has been the subject of intense debate. The commonly-held belief is that the technically superior Betamax was beaten by VHS through slick marketing. In fact the truth is more complex and there were a number of reasons for the outcome.And in the art world, that seems to be one of the keys to emerging as the winner in battles to be associated with an idea: making a complex idea or development more accessible. That's not to say by dumbing it down or making it more commercial, but by working to bring to it (imho) the ultimate in artistic achievement: clarity. Manage that, and no matter who was first with an idea, the public will turn toward you.
Sony's founder, Akio Morita, claimed that licensing problems between Sony and other companies slowed the growth of Betamax and allowed VHS to become established. However most commentators have played down this issue and cited other reasons as being more important.
It is certainly true that VHS machines were initially much simpler and cheaper to manufacture, which would obviously be an attraction to companies deciding which standard to back.
Of course clarity usually only comes through intense focus, and often years of it. But it will ultimately shine through any slick marketing by competitors.