Friday, November 08, 2013


Recently 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 belonging to 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.


Smurfswacker said...

I'd like to suggest there was another obstacle to wholesale copying that has fallen in the digital age. Though some copyists drew their swipes "by hand," there was usually some sort of machinery involved: the pantograph, the projector, the stat camera. These required considerable money and/or space, plus maybe a certain skill. I think the ease with which one can cut, paste, flop, re-color and resize digital material contributes to the rise of "painless" appropriation.

Donald Pittenger said...

I gather from what was mentioned towards the top of the post is that the best way for an artist to protect his work is to be rich enough to hire an aggressive lawyer.

And then there's the quote supposedly from a famous artist (I forget who) to the effect that the very best artists steal.

As an artist/lawyer, what say you, David?

Anonymous said...

Can an artist use a photograph as reference for a painting? How close to the original photo is too close?

kev ferrara said...

This one was among your top posts, David. Thanks for the great read.

Maddening that we live in a culture where the lie is so effectively disseminated culture-wide, and "sophisticated" opinion so controlled, that the truth scarcely has a chance to make its case, ever. But the lie makes the fools feel good, while making the knaves famous, powerful, and/or moneyed. Why allow real artists or philosophers into that fixed game?

Not surprisingly, Lichtenstein is full of crap and ignorant to his own benefit when he writes that "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word...."

Here's Dean Cornwell: "In illustration, form particularly, character, and spirit are the prime requirements."

Instructive to note that Dean Cornwell was speaking to art students when he said that, whereas Lichtenstein was speaking for publication to a writer.

Finnian Beazlie said...

I really think there should be a more specific double standard in place. IMO individual artists using other people and corporation's art as a basis for their own work is more culturally valuable than a corporation stealing an individual's work for advertising. Like or hate Warhol, his campbell's soup can is more interesting than any of Campbell's own art or advertising. I think loosened copyright in favor of individuals could actually improve the economic climate for genuine artists. Right now, we have the worst of both worlds, though.

MORAN said...

All that copying still looks like shit. It doesn't do them any good to steal, they still can't make a decent picture even when they copy. Congdon sucks.

Unknown said...

I think an important facet, in whether it constitutes "theft" [ie: violating copyright/intellectual property] is whether or not the new work is transformative [significantly different in context or medium] or whether it merely copies or appropriates without really adding or changing anything. With the examples in the article, we have one artist creating illustrations inspired by some photographs and another creating sculptures inspired by those illustrations.

I don't believe either is guilty of these artists are guilty of theft. But then again, I didn't believe Jeff Koons was when the courts found against him when a sculpture of his had been inspired by a photo, that sculpture was clearly transformative in both context [his sculpture was satirical - to the extent of farce, compared to the photo which was pretty straightforward and, of course, in an entirely different medium] - so what do I know?


Anonymous said...

Such creative laziness on both parts. The supreme court of art, the honorable Judge etc,etc presiding, hereby declares the parties in pari delicto.

Anonymous said...

Laziness? What's the difference between drawing from life and drawing from a photo, in terms of the amount of work required? Did Congdon pay for the (presumably stock) photos she used for reference, and did the license specifically prohibit her from reproducing them in such a way?

If these are copyrighted images downloaded from the net and not paid for, I would agree we are in at the very least a gray area (like Shepard Fairey with the Obama "Hope" art). If they were duly purchased, there is no more of an issue than if a designer buys a stock photo and composites it into his work, with or without altering it.

Anonymous said...


I was discussing the woeful artistic and creative merit of the work. In the days of real art, quoting a figure was considered perfectly legitimate practice, and more than a few illustrators have quoted fine artists. I could not care less about the nanny-state, I'm-gonna-tell-teacher-you're-copying-my-drawing issues you're referring to.

David Apatoff said...

There are plenty of interesting things to discuss about the legal standards for copyright infringement but here I am most interested in the effect on the art itself-- its quality, its originality, and the ethical practices of the artist.

In my view, the legal standard for the "fair use" exemption from copyright infringement doesn't qualify as a solid or a liquid, and barely qualifies as a gas. If you ever want a rollicking laugh, sit in on the Congressional hearings where clueless legislators with white hair read questions written for them by their young staffers, mispronouncing every third word. That's just one reason why the law can't keep up with the changing technology.

I am always happy to discuss the law, but here I think it is interesting that artists who borrow so readily from other sources become agitated when they think another artist is borrowing from them.

This could just be blatant hypocrisy (always a reliable guess) but it could also be the result of a new generation of ethical principles that say certain types of theft are permissible. It is apparently not so bad to steal from low or "popular culture" art forms, or from photographs. Some of the comments received so far point out other aspects of the new rules: it is apparently less acceptable for a corporation to steal for profit, than for an individual artist to steal to enhance their reputation. It is apparently more acceptable to borrow from a stock photograph than from a photograph creates for artistic reasons.

David Apatoff said...

Smurfswacker-- I agree. All of those elements not only make it more painless to appropriate, but easier to cover your tracks in a purely cosmetic fashion.

Donald Pittenger-- Because the legal standards for "fair use" are so elastic, there are plenty of copyright owners who collect all sorts of benefits they don't deserve, simply by having aggressive lawyers send threatening letters. There are also all kinds of thieves who iuse aggressive lawyers to intimidate legitimate copyright owners out of their rights. I think it's a real problem.

Anonymous-- That's the real question, isn't it, and one that is discussed frequently around here. The extreme ends of the spectrum seem pretty clear. I don't think anyone would begrudge an artist using an old photograph to understand how historical details look, and I think everyone would begrudge an artist for directly tracing an entire copyrighted photo and passing it off as their own. In between there is a lot of gray. In this week's post, we have artists that copy a little, but who also get indignant when others copy a little from their copied image. I think that makes a difference, too.

armandcabrera said...

why does anyone need to take anything from anyone anymore with image banks you can buy things from and everyone carrying a camera or video camera with them at all times to make your own reference?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- The cultural "lie" at the core of this trend seems to me to be a two part invention. Without both the ignorance of the audience and the dishonesty of the artist, this process would never have flourished. As for Lichtenstein, you may think he is "full of crap" but it is amazing how many critics and pundits have devoted their eloquence to rationalizing his theft of this particular comic strip panel. For example, Wikipedia justifies the similarity by saying, "Lichtenstein's derivation augments the presentation of the narrative and expands the use of color in the image." Not quite Lichtenstein's explanation, but I assume you don't find it any more persuasive?

Finnian Beazlie wrote: "Like or hate Warhol, his campbell's soup can is more interesting than any of Campbell's own art or advertising."

Well, visually the label is almost indistinguishable. I give Warhol credit for recognizing that the product labels for Brillo or Campbell's soup are bold graphic designs, and that if we look at them in a different context (enlarged on a gallery wall rather than on a supermarket shelf) we will finally see that design for the first time. But I'm not sure Warhol's insight makes him a better designer than the original product designer.

MORAN-- I agree that many of the artists who "borrow" heavily end up turning out some pretty mediocre work.

David Apatoff said...

r.j. pare-- I agree. For me, the extent to which the new work is "tranformative" is probably the most important of all the variables we have discussed. One could make a good argument that there is nothing new under the sun, so all that's left is transformation. One reason artists today have turned to scooping up bundles of historical images and manipulating or animating them rather than painting on a canvas is that there are no new color combinations and compositions left to be tried within the four corners of a canvas. Nobody wants to compete with 5,000 years of picture making, so they change the rules to avoid a head on confrontation.

As for the legalities of Jeff Koons' case-- as I said above, that is not my primary concern. I am more concerned that he is a glib artistic fraud (IMO), rather than that he is a copyright violator.

Etc, etc.-- Honored judge, what sentence do you impose on these malefactors? Be stern.

Anonymous wrote: "Laziness? What's the difference between drawing from life and drawing from a photo, in terms of the amount of work required?"

I'd say there is a big difference, based on the popularity of photography as a crutch for people who don't draw very well. A photograph converts a 3D object to a 2D object for you, and scales it down to page size. Even if you don't then resort to a light box or a scanner or a projector, a photograph takes care of a lot of early heavy lifting (or put another way, deprives you of a lot of creative choices).

Armand Cabrera-- An excellent question. I assume it's more of that "laziness" to which Etc, etc refers. Among the artists I know who use photo reference, the ones who take their own photos seem to be far better.

I once interviewed an illustrator who worked with Bernie Fuchs in the 1950s. He took some photographs on location for an assignment that Fuchs was supposed to handle. The illustrator said that to make sure he had the subject thoroughly covered, he took 80 photos and brought them back to Fuchs, then sat with Fuchs as he went through all 80 pictures, searching for even one he could use. At the end, he rummaged back through the pile and mumbled, "I guess I can make something out of this one." The artist said, "from that day on, I never again tried to shoot photo reference for Bernie."

kev ferrara said...

The cultural "lie" at the core of this trend seems to me to be a two part invention. Without both the ignorance of the audience and the dishonesty of the artist, this process would never have flourished.


I think you are forgetting the role of the philosopher-critics, the third party in the cultural boondoggle. One of the defining precepts of postmodernism is that the artist doesn't make his own art. Instead the artist is considered a human antennae that picks up the signals of the zeitgeist, merely making patchwork quilts from his cultural milieu and inheritances. This view falls in line with the idea that there is no such thing as creativity or talent, merely the savvy to more secretly steal from the collective cultural store in order to try to impress people (and steal their money thereby.)

Thus, natch, we are indeed all equally talented and creative. Only problem, again, being that some of us are trying to fleece the rubes out there into thinking we are special by making Art using the old-timey tricks.

Better that the artist should be forthright, that all art is a form of theft, all artists thieves. Thus the artist is remade in honest form; now rather than be secret with his influences, he eschews the tricks of the trade (drawing, for instance) and simply pastes his inspiration directly onto the canvas; the sources of his work placed into the art as the art.

And that is the academic/philosophical justification for all the outright theft ("Derivation") we are seeing. Academia, after all, is so much smarter and more forward-thinking than you or I, David. Aren't you sophisticated enough to realize that?

"Lichtenstein's derivation augments the presentation of the narrative and expands the use of color in the image."

I'm quite sure the above statement was properly sourced and footnoted. Which means it is true. (I guess this is the fourth party to the disaster, the credulous foot-soldiers who spread the idiotic word.)

Laurence John said...

"...rather than painting on a canvas is that there are no new color combinations and compositions left to be tried within the four corners of a canvas. Nobody wants to compete with 5,000 years of picture making"

David, i agree with this (even though i think it's a gloomy prospect) but i think it affects image making across all mediums, not just painting.

Kev, i can see why you want to believe that the cut and paste culture only exists among the postmodernists, but the fact is: it is an incredibly difficult time to produce an image that looks new and original and doesn't inadvertently reference some previous school / ism or other... whether you're a postmodern 'recontextualizer' or not.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence, learning a style of composing pictures or a way of thinking about form and color or line from a master artist is hardly the same as cut and paste. Calling it all "derivation" is a rhetorical imposture designed to subsume real creativity under the same heading as theft - a typical kind of hide-the-pea parlor game played by pomo philosophers looking to make a name for themselves in their proscriptively politicized ideological milieu.

And anybody who thinks that there are no new color combinations must specify exactly when the absolute last "new" color scheme appeared. I dare anyone to give it a go: Url please! Let's see that very last true work of art!

(This is one of those proclamations up there with: Painting is dead, art is dead, music is dead, history has ended, etc. Its a shoot first, then aim kind of a statement.)

Nothing has ended. I paint with badass artists almost every week, and I'll tell you one thing straight away. They have no fear of other artists, living or dead.

5000 years of picture making is BS anyhow. There has only been like 700 years of picture making, and only a few hundred great artists. And of those, I only personally think 60 or so are truly great. This reduces the "fear factor" of daring to making a painting to just about zilch. The real worry for most painters I know is that Postmodernists have a stranglehold on the disposable dollars of rich people, while being enabled by gaggles of pomo academics and critics who reside in institutional and media strongholds. This has obvious consequences in the market.

Laurence John said...

Kev, there are loads of artists around today who can whack out an alla prima life study of the quality (near enough anyway) of Sargent, and their work is completely irrelevant.
why irrelevant ? because they will not even warrant a footnote in the pages of art history.

what you seem to be forgetting is the 'novelty' factor that artists like Sargent and later Leyendecker (for example) had; they were products of their times, they were responding to their times, and their art looked fresh, new and exciting for those times. in some instances the art even defined the times. that's what's missing from the merely competent / skilled painters of today.

Donald Pittenger said...

Laurence, it depends who will write art history decades or a century from now, and that is unpredictable.

In my book on modernist art (plug, plug), I wonder if the various color/proportional/etc. distortions, contemporary cultural references, and so forth that are common to much of modernism and postmodernism have staying power. That is, will people in, say, 2113 connect to a Jasper Johns or a Lichtenstein as easily as they likely will with a Rembrandt, Sargent, or a painting by a good artist who deals with humanity?

Well, the truth of my conjecture is also unknowable. And even if it proves out, I'm sure art history written a century from know will include some postmodernists because they will be famous for having been famous once upon a time. Nevertheless, it will be a somewhat different art history from the Establishment version we all love and admire.

Laurence John said...

art history favours the ones who were 'of their time'. it also remembers the moments of change, when one 'ism' morphed into or was replaced by the next.
of course a few unpopular or out of step artists are recovered from obscurity decades later. that happens. but i'm afraid i don't share your optimism that the history books will be rewritten. for one thing, there are simply too many obscure artists around today for people even ten years into the future to be trawling archives for.

kev ferrara said...

All you are saying, Laurence, is that you personally accept the current status quo in the art world as legitimate. Which dovetails with your emphasis on novelty and insensitivity to quality. (Or maybe you simply confuse or commingle novelty with quality, which would explain your opinions of Sargent and Leyendecker.)

Anyhow, if you think the exclusion of Brangwyn, Sorolla, and Fechin from Art History is fine, based on sensible judgement, then there's not really much to say to you. Except that I consider you part of the problem, a foot soldier for the enemy in the ongoing cultural marketing wars.

Laurence John said...

Kev, you're missing the point: the artist has always been a 'human antenna' for what is going on around them. that's why certain golden age illustrators were able to reflect the times, and become popular.
the art / illustration world has always been fickle in nature and careers have fizzled out overnight because of changes in taste or social change long before postmodernism came along.

Laurence John said...

the other point is that there are tons of competently, traditionally skilled yet dull as dishwater artists around today who blame the current state of the art world for the fact that they're not successful, when the truth is that they would never have even been successful had they lived a hundred years ago.

kev ferrara said...

No, I didn't miss your point, Laurence. I just think it is dismissive of artistic greatness, and reductive as to how culture works. And thus egregiously wrong.

Leyendecker's training was timeless, even though he was the beneficiary of hundreds of years of forward evolution in art instruction. Leyendecker then became the fashion because of his greatness, released through his training, smarts, and hard work. His popularity sold magazines, and made other magazines pop up, and other young talents wanted to become illustrators, wanted to be him. We have Rockwell because of Leyendecker. Given Leyendecker's ability to sell magazines, it is plain to see that Leyendecker was an engine of his artistic times. Far more than he was an antennae passively picking up signals.

If you want to equate Leyendecker's training, talent, smarts, creativity, and perseverance with bloody cut and paste, go ahead. But don't expect me to take you seriously.

I see the postmodern (emotional or ideological) need to destroy the reputation of great artists by lumping them in with the most egregiously hacky pastiche-peddlers as disgusting ethically and destructive to culture in equal measure; A poison meme in need of eradication.

Laurence John said...

Kev : "Given Leyendecker's ability to sell magazines, it is plain to see that Leyendecker was an engine of his artistic times."

i already said that in my second post above when i wrote "in some instances the art even DEFINED the times"

i didn't suggest that having an artistic 'antenna' was some passive activity that any fool could do. i'm taking raw talent as a given.
i'm saying that you need raw talent AND the ability to catch the mood of the times to achieve fame. hence the sudden end to so many careers as tastes change.
hence your inability to realise that training and hard work isn't enough in itself.

Anonymous said...


Do you feel that artistic innovation is everything and that past artistic accomplishments are irrelevant, and therefore there need not be even an attempt to understand and assimilate past artistic accomplishments beyond a superficial survey to determine what has not been done? Or are you simply saying that innovation is of primary importance?

Laurence John said...

etc etc, you can 'understand and assimilate' the work of as many past artists as you feel will be beneficial to your own work. whether you're successful or not will depend on the current fickle art climate, which galleries you approach with the work, how you define 'success' and a host of other factors.

"Or are you simply saying that innovation is of primary importance?"

novelty excites the market. people like to see something new. i'm not saying that is a good thing. it just is.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence, we seem to be talking past each other here. I'm fully cognizant that training and hard work are just part of the equation for artistic fame. But fame is a different question than whether an artist is deserving of recognition for being great as an artist in the History of Art. Because fame can be manipulated up and down by purely politicized cultural forces. And such tyrannical cults come and go. (The History of Art may one day include Keane and Kinkaide paintings if their fans suddenly get control of the conversation.)

Fechin, Brangwyn, and Sorolla were all immensely successful artists in their day, enormously influential, and I've not heard of a single artist then or now who, having been exposed to their works, denies their greatness on the pure merits of the work. But what has happened is that the modernists and postmodernists have taken control of the history of art and simply did a Stalin-erase on these artists, wiping them out of the history books as if they never happened. So they aren't even part of the conversation. Most artists are never exposed to their work at all.

How does this fit in to what you are saying about how the canon is formed?

If you continue to pledge allegiance to the currently fashionable "History of Art" you are essentially saying, "I agree that Fechin, Brangwyn, and Sorolla were not important artists, were not influential, and deserve to be forgotten. And in their place we should only look at the members of the Blue Rider group or Hans Hoffman."

The culture wars are information wars. Whoever controls the conversation controls opinion. If you truly like art, you must get outside of all the information control in order to make your own qualitative judgements about what is good or not, and seek to destroy, rather than defend, the pomo cult that is trying to browbeat you into subscribing to their dogma-cum-business model.

Laurence John said...

Kev, i suppose i just feel more pessimistic about the whole art scene than you and don't think we have the power to change it or undo its failings.

if i want to appreciate Fechin, Brangwyn, Sorolla ( or illustrators like Leyendecker or HJ Ward ) i can do so in my own time by looking at a book of their work or images online, and i don't need the endorsement of the art establishment to tell me whether the work is important or not.

the 'fine' art world is so off in its own little bubble now that it's ceased to really mean anything to me anymore.

Laurence John said...

as for the 'canon': i don't think that armies of students learning how to paint like Sorolla would produce lot's of interesting art. i can't really explain why. i'm just certain that it wouldn't.
there'll be a few great ones, but the majority -as i said above- will be merely technically good but dull.

you seem to think that the progression of a certain lineage of painting was hijacked by modernism and laterly postmodernism, but i see what happened as a reaction to the upheaval and change of pace in the 20th century. i don't see a conspiracy to deliberately divert the course away from something that was going really well. times change and art and always reflects those changes.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

Interesting to note, Fashion design has never really had the copyright protections that 2D art is now losing.

As a result, fashion design is forced to remain forever novel to grab any attention, or to make any money (sometimes to the detriment of other qualities, e.g. comfort, durability).

As someone who greatly relishes in novelty and the new norm, as someone who thinks we gained more by gaining Photoshop, than we lost by losing Leyendecker, I'm ecstatic by this change.

For those of you whom aren't, perhaps you ought to look to the fashion world to try to suss out what will happen in the 2D art world, and what strategies may benefit you.

Archaic fashion designers sometimes make good money selling old and over-priced designs to wealthy people that want to convince themselves they're cultured, perhaps artists need to do the same thing today? Wait, I think they already do.

Laurence John said...

Richard, the fashion world is an almost exact mirror image of the current art world; you'll see a stiletto spliced with a trainer or a suit morphed with a padded jacket in exactly the same way that postmodern cut and paste imagery thrusts unrelated images together to create something 'new'.

it's all part of the same cultural crisis: we are living in a collage of the past.

Richard said...

The difference, of course, is that fashion has had a century of this as the status quo, so there has been time for the system to stabilize.

Art is still in heavy flux.

Richard said...

Anyway, the second point I am making is that just as there is in fashion a very strong reactionary group who chose the ~1920s as their golden age of fashion, and continue to produce works in that style for very wealthy people as a class-signifier, you can probably expect the same in art.

I wouldn't worry about a crisis. You can continue working in those methods if you like, you just have to know your audience--

Find nuevo-wealthy people who are desperate to seem old wealth, paint some archaic work, and sell them on the Art Renewal philosophy.

It worked for fashion, it will probably work for art as well.

Richard said...

Long story short: Just figure out who buys furs. That's your new audience.

Richard said...

Laurence, I had never looked at your blog before. XD Oops.

Laurence John said...

^ no offence taken.

"I wouldn't worry about a crisis"

i don't worry. i'm a dispassionate observer. that's why i can confidently say there is a 'crisis'.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence, I agree with your take on the similarity between the fashion industry and the current art world. However, at least some of the haute couture world still believes in beauty, because, I suppose, their clients do. And it is not really the role of fashion designers to communicate meaning through their work as it used to be in Art. In the process of becoming another branch of the fashion world, meaning has been jettisoned from painting and design has replaced composition.

I don't fault you for your disinterested pessimism about the current state of crisis in the arts. However, it also doesn't help.

It is not my interest to have an army of painters trying to work like sorolla, or anybody else. But instead to just have an army of artists who are so trained as to understand why Sorolla painted the way he did, what he was thinking. Same for understanding Brangwyn, Pyle, Fechin, Sargent, Klimt, Vermeer, Leyendecker, Monet, Titian, or even Cezanne and Braque.

Once you have the artists who are trained not just in painting, but in why one artist painted one way and another a different way, in practical aesthetic thought, they can go in a million different directions with that information. But at least they will have as solid a foundation for their creativity as possible.

Currently, I agree, most skillful painters aren't going to get the time of day for their work in the face of competitors willing to be constantly obnoxious and pandering to the sassy morons who currently determine hip taste.

Laurence John said...

Kev, we had all those great painters so why did the art world end up in it's current situation ?
you say it was lead astray by cynical marketeers. but how could all of that painterly tradition just curl up and die so easily ?

i say the process was purely organic and painting did what it did in response to the various situations in the 20th century such as two world wars, photography, cinema, advertising, TV, rock n roll, drugs, computers etc.

i see the post modern scene as just a symptom of the larger (western) crisis: culture has exhausted its modes of expression and there's nothing left to be said. hence the collage approach to practically everything. hence the constant referencing of past isms, whether painterly, musical or cinematic. we live in a collage of the past, one in which we can simply pick and choose the bits we like and tweak, polish, repackage, recontextualize ad infinitum. culture in a blender is really death of culture but we're told that it's just a form of 'newness'.

oh, and since fashion has come up, one other thing: paintings done in the style of Sargent / Sorolla but featuring sitters wearing t shirts, jeans and trainers just look awful. i'm sorry, but they just do. part of the beauty of paintings from around 1900 is that they're also a window into the lives of how people lived, and the clothes they wore is a big part of the charm of those paintings. we don't like to admit this because it sounds superficial but it's true. as i keep saying; art can't be divorced from the times in which it was created, or rather it can, but it will always just end up as pastiche, or a copy of something greater.

Laurence John said...

p.s. i understand what you mean though about training artists to think like those greats rather than just mimic the style.
the question remains though; what would such artists create today and would it be any better than what's already been done ?

i maintain (as i've said in previous comment sections) that most likely they'd be working in film / CG rather than paint.

Anonymous said...

What you are describing sounds eerily like what Hegel predicted would happen in the early 19th century. I do believe yet there is hope, though, simply because our understanding of aesthetics is yet superficial.

Richard said...

>they'd be working in film / CG rather than paint

Or Anime/Manga. Those guys can draw @_____@

kev ferrara said...


You ask a very complicated question. While I agree that the world and the culture evolve "organically", it is hardly so that human agency was absent from this process, which means it was hardly deterministic that we end up here. Which is not to discount all the factors you mentioned at all, and some essential factors you didn't mention.

Some of these are: wars and war-exhaustion, anti-bourgeoise politics, the portability and reproducibility of texts, the resulting takeover of the culture by materialist text and word thinkers and the resulting rise of pseudo-intellectualism, academic cults, "isms", scientism, literature as mass entertainment, marketing and advertising, direct marketing of cultural products to children (bypassing parental filters), and the fall of all metaphysical/philosophical sophistication in the general population due to the materialist takeover of the schools and the culture.

It all goes into the mix.

If I were to point to a particular aspect that was the most decisive, though, I would point to the issue of the marketing of modern art, which dovetails with almost all of the factors listed above.

If you read about the early history of modernism, there's a lot of tricky business afoot. There's every reason to believe that the market was manipulated by some lone, savvy actors. Once the price of some modern art was gamed-up, there was a gold-rush mentality that set in. All of a sudden, art that could be produced in a day or two was outselling "less hip" art that could be produced in a month at comparable price points and with better, and quicker, investment returns. And the media, the moneyed, the pseudo-intellectuals, and the critical politicos all jumped on board. This was a marketing boon for modernism, which took the rest of the art world completely by surprise.

Not suprisingly, the greatest artistic talents (barring the rare Alfred Maurers of that era), who were also the most practical and engineering minded, fled the high cultural battlefield, and rushed into murals, portraits, and illustration by the time the writing was on the wall. (Early 20th Century, before movies even.)

All of the above is just why the philosophical gibberish that spewed forth from the pens and mouths of modernists was taken as profound and became an essential part of the marketing of the brand (and the destruction of the marketing of the opposing brand.)

And marketing distorts cultural perceptions, (that is its purpose, one might say) to the point that successful marketing can completely subsume the market presence of competitors, regardless of questions of quality.

Laurence John said...

that topic would make a great documentary.
i'm not kidding.

Li-An said...

Interesting post - as always. The question of photographs reference for original art is crucial.
I love Moebius'work and it's a game for me to find which photographs he used for his most known paintings/drawings. For Moebius, a good image (cover, illustration...) needed a photograph reference - specially in western.
He was sued by a photograph because he used some of his work (Hendrix pictures) to make some disk cover. But the story ends nice because he found an arrangement with the photograph and draw a portfolio based on his work.

In France, we got a more problematic artist: François Roca who is well known. His paintings reffers to classic US illustrators in multiple ways. If he did some great original work, he was accused to "steal" compositions/subjects/colors from Pyle, Wyeth and so on. As he is french, this inspiration was uneasy to see because before the Internet, classic US illustration was not well known in France.
A post I made about the controversial art he made -

Litchi G. said...

So, I tried to find your e-mail but i could not, so I am sorry to post it here but it was the only way i found to get it touch with you :P

My name is Lidia, I am brazilian and I am living in Portugal at the moment.

I started this week a collaborative project and it will only work if people all around the world participate!

So i want to ask you if for any reason you are interested in publishing it in the website - i would be honored, actually - I am a huge fan :)

The idea is to make a children book based on one history my dad used to tell my sister and me when we were little. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, there were two little girls. One lived in Brazil and other in Australia. One day they went to China and… I keep on tomorrow.

In the next night, he would tell us the exact same history, but changing the origins of the girls and the place they went to. Every night he would make up a new place and new characters. It was amusing because like this we had to use our imaginations to create a history about the how they traveled, met in this new place, become friends and lived amusing adventures.

My idea, then, is invite illustrators from all around the world to make a representation of the little girls of their own country, and also one place where this girls could hang out and meet each other. In the end we will have a international book to invite little girls and little boys of everywhere play with their imagination!

I could draw myself what i think the little girls from all over looks like, but then I would probably fall in to stereotypes… This is why I think it will be much more interesting if people draw what they think a kid from their place looks like. So the proposal is for two illustrations: one of the girl of your place hanging out in her hometown and one of one place of your country (without characters) where two little girls from other place will meet. The story will not be written - it will be just proposals so people can imagine they own story based on the characters and places given. I could not find any images, but you know that books that are divided in two, so by the combination of top and bottom part you can make different figures? It will be something like that.

In this link you can find the base that will be used for all illustrators. You can use any support, tecnics and materials, add background, objects – you can do everything you want! Just be sure that you can scan it in high quality and send me back.

The distribution of the material will be in Creative Commons Licence – it means that not me or no one can explore this book commercially. Each illustrator prints your own exemplar, and as many more you want to give as a present to everyone you like.

Any ideas about improvements in the project are welcome! The idea is to have the book done around Christmas, so the deadline for the illustrations is 10 OF DECEMBER.

If you guys can even make a small note inviting people to send their work, it would be a huge help! I am pretty sure that the your readers are very creative and awesome people!

Here is the link of the blog:

Thank you!


Sean Farrell said...

We live in a collage of the past. A wonderful line.

Another angle on this theft idea, is the type of reading people do which is largely prose, intellectual, critical thinking and such fails to engage the imaginative image making process as does fiction where the reader is free to travel with the story, living it pictorially, emotionally and sharing in its drama.

Today's Common Core Curriculum emphasizes what one needs for a future job. In this new curriculum history starts at 1600, supposedly because only so many schools can afford the teachers who know world history. Any flimsy excuse will be used to make everything fair for all. The new curriculum brings to mind a recent book called Permanent Present Tense about a man who had a lobotomy and lived the rest of his life under the care of a doctor. He was unable to form relationships as his attention span was just 30 seconds.

Yet people will still crave novelty even in a society of a near permanent present tense as this link on “bagelheads” illustrates.

In our post-literate world, not only has the imaginative pictorial image making process been replaced by theft, but the difficulties which come with real relationships have been replaced with an idealized sense of love and fairness, a kind of theft flattening of our notion of being human as Burgess Meredith found out in the episode of the Twilight Zone, titled The Obsolete Man.

One trick to surviving the copycats and thieves is to do something in plain sight which they cant see. Bernie Fuchs did just that as his contemporaries used the cross or t, inverted t and variations on the vertical and horizontal design with great repetition. Fuchs emphasized the top and bottom and created the horizontal as a movement of space between the two. His under delineated treatment of the picture's surface allowed the eye to freely wander the smoky variations of tone. At other times, the cross movement was something moving across a dominant horizontal space, sometimes under a vertical sun for example.

Unknown said...

Thanks for a photographer I talk about this sort of thing a lot to friends who don't seem to get it.