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Fine Art Appropriation and the Culture of Taking

Posted by Rebecca Blake on January 29, 2014

Recently the science and science fiction blog io9 posted on article that hit a nerve with illustrators.  In “How a Science Fiction Book Cover Became a $5.7 Million Painting,” Charlie Jane Anders reported on the sale of artist Glenn Brown’s 1994 painting, “Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis)”. What hit a nerve with illustrators is that the painting is a faithful copy of  scifi illustrator Charlie Foss’ cover art for Isaac Asimov’s book Stars Like Dust. In light of continuous highly publicized cases of fine artists appropriating and profiting from the work of illustrators and photographers (Richard Prince, Shephard Fairey, Jeff Koons, etc), the ire is warranted.

Images © Charlie Foss (left) and Glenn Brown (right)

Glenn Brown's painting (right) is unmistakeably derived from Charlie Foss' original illustration. Images © the artists.

However, as with any circumstance that inflames, it’s advisable to take a closer look at the facts of the case. This is exactly what artist Glendon Mellow did in his  article ”How Plagiarized Art Sells for Millions“ on the Scientific American blog “Symbiartic.” Mellow first summarizes the history of contemporary art from Modernism through the “Internetz”, tracing the practice of appropriating cultural imagery through iconic artists such as Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol. He then revisits Brown’s offending painting, pointing out that what is lost in the translation to web is an understanding of the difference in scale and detail between the painting and the original illustration.

Anders then issued a follow-up article, in which she clarified the details of the story: Brown had received permission from Foss before creating the painting, and didn’t see a single penny from the recent sale. Some comments on the article have pointed out that Brown could have credited the original illustrator in the painting title – many works are labeled “After…” in recognition of the original source. However, as Mellow points out, the current state of affairs, in which fine artists churn out mediocre work largely based on others’ original creations, is a reflection of the our culture of mash-ups and repinning, reposting, and reblogging, with no thought to crediting the original authors. As Mellow wrote, “Fine art culture is holding up a big expensive mirror at you and Internet culture right now.”

Brought to our attention by @ColleenDoran.

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