Thursday, February 12, 2009

From untitled to unattributed; or, the rapid decline of the ICA

Shepard Fairey has been much in the news, between the AP pointing out that he took the image of Obama for his Obama Hope poster from an AP photograph, his inexplicable solo show at the ICA in Boston, the overwhelming volume of promotion for his ICA show, and his arrest by the Boston Police because of his past (alleged/admitted/celebrated) tagging around Boston. The AP flap has gotten people all confused again about the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism. Here’s one way to think about it: art may involve copyright infringement, but art should never involve plagiarism.

As hard as it is to define art, we should all agree that art has to include some originality. Plagiarism—the passing off of someone else’s idea as your own—does not preclude originality, but it deceives the audience as to what that originality includes. For that reason, plagiarism is simply incompatible with art. Shepard Fairey knows that he plagiarizes. The ICA apparently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care. Out of all the fawning and foaming that Shepard Fairey has induced around Boston of late, it’s the acceptance of plagiarism by our Institute of Contemporary Art which truly reflects poorly on our fair city.


Michael said...

The “untitled” in the post title refers to the ICA’s previous exhibition of Tara Donovan installations, where (almost?) every piece was labeled untitled. Tara Donovan’s work raises interesting questions about originality of idea vs. implementation, and is an argument for expanding the standard template for a museum wall label to include an “execution” or “installation” credit.

Just as Tara Donovan’s works were untitled, the ICA exhibition was simply titled “Tara Donovan” with no subtitle. I’d like to see the subtitle of the eponymous Shepard Fairey show changed from “Supply and Demand” to “[citation needed]”.

Jed said...

I know essentially nothing about Shepard Fairey other than having now read the article you linked to. (And that he's the Obama poster guy.) So there may well be lots of info I don't have about this.

But it seems to me that the line between plagiarism and copyright infringement is not as bright as you're suggesting. I don't know what the standards are for giving credit, but it seems to me that an awful lot of art (a) references other art and (b) doesn't give explicit credit to the other art. Also, a lot of art consists primarily of recontextualizing something made by someone else.

When people do mashups, or use samples in rap, or blow up comic-strip panels to giant size, or put a urinal in an art gallery, or add the caption "Think Different" to a photo, it seems to me (though I may just be wrong about this) that they often neglect to credit the original that they're using, at least not in a way that can be discerned by the casual audience member.

And the examples on that page you linked to don't really convince me. Fairey isn't just taking an existing work and reselling it, unmodified, as his own; he's making changes. Whether those changes are sufficiently transformative seems to me to be a copyright question. But (for example) taking an image in an easily recognizable style that evokes a totalitarian government, and putting the word OBEY on it (especially in the context of a lot of other instances of putting that word on other people's images) seems to me to be more interesting than just plagiarism.

Another interesting question is how recognizable he expected the art he's using to be. If he said somewhere "Yeah, you caught me, I was hoping that everyone would think I created this from scratch, so I used a really obscure image that I figured nobody would recognize," then I'll absolutely go along with the plagiarism charge. But a lot of art references pretty obscure work, and is aimed at people who will nonetheless recognize the reference. Given only the info I've seen so far, it seems at least plausible to me that Fairey expected/hoped that people would recognize his sources.

Again, I don't know anything about what he's done or said other than what's on that page. There may well be overwhelming evidence that I would find completely convincing. But what I've seen so far leaves me hesitant to brand him as a plagiarist without knowing more about it.

Michael said...

It’s geometrically impossible to describe a line between copyright infringement and plagiarism -- they are two orthogonal concepts, given the lack of moral rights in US copyright law.

I don’t expect artists to give explicit credit to their sources and their references. I just expect them not to actively mislead their audience about where their original contribution lies. The linked article quoted Shepard Fairey calling it getting busted when someone recognized the actual source of an image he sold as an original design of his. That’s a sufficiently detailed admission to me. Duchamp’s response to people pointing out that he didn’t sculpt the urinal wasn’t “You caught me.”