Spring 2001

Meanwhile, in the weird world of art

When musicians remake an old hit, it’s called a cover version. When a painter copies an illustrator it’s called fine art

Turner Prize nominee Glenn Brown paints detailed canvases copied exactly, on a giant scale, from commercial illustrations, mainly science-fiction book covers by artists such as Chris Foss and Anthony Roberts. He also lifts images from paintings by Salvador Dali and Frank Auerbach. Yet in the contemporary art world, Brown is taken very seriously indeed, with critics writing approvingly of his technique, his love of painting and his reverence for art history. Brown himself says of of illustration: ‘No-one has made serious art out of it; that’s why I wanted to try.’

This could only happen in the bizarre world of contemporary art. In the music business, if you cover a song, or sample it, you’re obliged to pay the writer royalties and credit the source [the rights of ownership and paternity enshrined in copyright laws]. The Loves of Shepherds (a copy of Anthony Roberts’s cover for the Robert Heinlein novel Double Star) sold for £30,000. Will any proportion of the sale price and proceeds of image-licensing of Brown’s work find its way into the pockets of the illustrators he copied? A copy of a Chris Foss artwork, exact to the tiniest detail, sold for £10,000. In the weird world of art, you can pick up a Foss original for much less than Brown’s copy. As another Brown – James Brown – said: ‘Take me off your record, ’less you’re paying me.’

The lack of credit and permission from the source grates even more than the financial absurdities. Artist Dave Gibbons, co-author of the graphic novel Watchmen with writer Alan Moore, is no stranger to mainstream art’s appropriation from that other source of ‘non-serious art’, comic books.

‘I detest the arrogant notion that commercial work just happens to exist and is therefore devoid of creativity or intellectual process,’ says Gibbons. ‘There are huge demands made on one’s creativity. The kind of straight-from-the-subconscious work which can result is often fascinating and deeply involving. I’d draw a parallel with the work of Charles Dickens, whose work was produced under relentless commercial pressure.

‘Many of the “art” copies of commercial work lack even the basic craftsmanship of the original,’ continues Gibbons. At this point Glenn’s spiritual forebear comes into view. ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s copies of the work of Irv Novick and Russ Heath are flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images … the original artists have translated reality into clear, effective compositions using economical and spirited linework.’

Art critic Lawrence Alloway made his distaste for commercial art clear when writing about Lichtenstein in the early 1980s: ‘Future research will no doubt come up with the names of the people who drew some of Lichtenstein’s originals, but so what? He was not engaged in mutual collaboration but acts of annexation.’ Nearly a generation later, the art establishment has hardly evolved from this vulgar triumphalism.

A justification for Brown’s methods comes courtesy of Tate supremo Nicholas Serota, the Turner Prize’s chairman. Serota observes that Brown has ‘transformed it’ by ‘giving it a completely different scale’. In other words, ‘size matters’. But making something bigger isn’t quite the same as making it your own. Dave Gibbons recently attended a show of images from the work of comic artist Hugo Pratt in Lucca, where individual artwork panels were projected on to a cinema-sized screen. ‘They were breathtaking in their sense of abstract design and power,’ he says. ‘This was a true aesthetic thrill, not a snide and over-laboured exercise in irony.’

Another justification might be that Glenn Brown’s appropriation of popular illustration is a new and shocking gesture that will shake up the art world. But as Designers Republic’s Ian Anderson says, ‘It is hardly new or revolutionary, especially in the realms of design.’ Anderson warms to his theme: “Either Brown is ill-read in related creative fields of visual expression, and therefore condemned to repeat history, or feels that he is doing other people a favour by elevating their work into the realms of art, thereby perpetuating the outdated notion that such ‘art’ (as in self-defined art) occupies the higher moral and intellectual ground.” Certainly, gallery curators emerge from this with their reputations for historical knowledge and context in tatters.

Roberts and Foss are not amused. ‘This was a blatant breach of copyright,’ complains Foss, who illustrated The Joy of Sex and has worked as a concept designer on Alien, Superman and Kubrick’s uncompleted AI. He had received a letter from Brown requesting permission to copy the painting: ‘He gave the impression he was a student or a struggling artist. He asked if he could copy one of my paintings. I know he copied it directly from the book. He said, “In no way will it be a direct copy.” Those were his exact words. We wrote back saying “Well, give it a go” … At no stage were we given the idea that this was a commercial venture.’

Foss was astonished to find that the copy was exact ‘down to the last detail’. The credit was not forthcoming. ‘The original catalogue [for ‘Sensation’] did not have my name in until we made a fuss.’ The Times managed to locate Roberts, who had been completely unaware of The Loves of Shepherds. He came away from a confrontation with Brown at the Tate angry after discovering that his image was also on sale as postcards and in the exhibition catalogue. As Gibbons points out, Novick and Heath were also beneath the galleries’ notice. ‘They received no payment for Lichtenstein’s appropriation, or, let’s be blunt, theft, of their work. Legality aside, that one artist would do this to another strikes me as despicable.’

Many painters have quoted themes and compositions from their forebears. A hapless Tate spokesman even argued that Brown’s appropriation is the equivalent of ‘Constable looking at a piece of Suffolk landscape’. (A more accurate comparison would be Constable looking at someone else’s painting of a piece of Suffolk landscape.) Historically, copying the Masters was considered to be a part of the painter’s training, not the final product.

This defence, and its close variant which is sometimes mounted like some libertarian rallying call against the forces of oppression and control, runs along the lines of: ‘True art must be free to tackle any subject!’ But consider copying out, say, a Stephen King novel, setting it in larger type, giving it a new title, and calling it your own. Brown’s exercise relies upon the two-tier system that holds certain works as raw material, cultural clip-art (or non-art) that is there to be freely appropriated.

John Kieffer, curator and currently director of performing arts at the British Council, takes a broader view: ‘My basic position is that the creator of a work of art should receive their dues,’ and notes that there can be a positive side to plagiarism. ‘Sampling in music … has been behind some great music in the last fifteen years, and has acted as a kind of musical archaeology.’

So if Brown is acting as a visual archaeologist and is celebrating his sources, it could be argued that he is taking on the role of curator by bringing ‘lost gems’ back into the public’s eye. But his comments display a deep lack of respect for the people he samples. Brown states that ‘skill and craftsmanship are seen as vulgar in the art establishment’, a view that has the unfortunate corollary of devaluing all works that display these properties regardless of their intellectual content. (This distrust of skill is like valuing bad grammar or poor acting for their own sake. Visual dexterity, like good acting, is not valued in and of itself but becomes transparent, so the artist’s vision shines through – otherwise what we see is surely coloured by the artist’s technical shortcomings.)

The question of whether it is more or less valid for a piece of art to be commissioned for commercial reasons or for a gallery wall is problematic. Much of the work produced by Turner Prize artists is intensely commercial – it makes a lot of money for the artists and galleries. Wolfgang Tillmans (the photographer who won the Turner prize 2000) works across the fields of documentary, fashion and fine art.

If we extend the musical analogy to see what the next gallery developments might be, the recent lounge movement and its revival and non-ironic celebration of the forgotten gems of commercial session music seems to suggest the imminent promotion of painters such as Tretchikoff and J. H. Lynch. As Wayne Hemingway asserts in Just Above the Mantlepiece (Booth-Clibborn Editions): ‘Value deserves to be restored to a genre derided by certain members of the art elite.’ Hemingway explains: ‘Within two years of the paintings being reproduced in print form, Tretchikoff became relegated to lowbrow status. In fact, Tretchikoff’s decision to reproduce his prints … transformed the relationship between artist and purchaser to one between artist and a hundred-thousand purchasers.’ It is this democratic appeal of working for commercial print and the audience it provides that many ‘commercial’ artists value so highly.

To compound the issue, more people will see Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) After Chris Foss – Brown’s brushstroke-for-brushstroke Chris Foss copy – printed in the catalogue than will see it on a gallery wall. This reproduction cannot show its scale – the one important factor we are asked to believe has transformed the image from illustration into ‘art’. The Times published a photograph of Foss holding the Tate’s catalogue reproduction up beside another reproduction, this time of the original, from 1990’s Diary of a Spaceperson. Here, the Brown is printed at a third the size of the Foss. If the ‘art’ content in this case, as the Tate assures us, is a function of size, then by my calculations, it must now contain two thirds less ‘art’ than the Foss. Roberts and Foss are currently reviewing legal advice from intellectual property lawyers.

The establishment’s blind spots are on show elsewhere. When I was at art school, the gallery wall was the local Our Price where Malcolm Garrett, Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville and others were setting the world’s visual senses alight with ideas. The Neville Brody exhibition at the V&A could have been built upon but the follow-up – a design for music show – had little quality control and missed out some iconic pieces, as if the choices were made not for their aesthetic value but (in a postmodern trap) as cultural artifacts where design for recognisable acts was valued more highly than interesting work for nobodies.

The New York gallery scene is not as indifferent. Ian Anderson continues: ‘Designers Republic have been involved in group exhibitions such as ‘Synaesthesia’ at the Mary Anthony Gallery (curated by Ronnie Cutrone) and ‘Customizing Terror’ at Artists Space (curated by Ronald Jones from Yale). The nature of the presentation was never an issue. Ronald’s idea celebrated the fact that our items could be mass-produced – there was a strong consumerist aesthetic involved.’

He continues: ‘Art has always been one of the most accurate social expressions of humankind and our achievements and failings throughout history. What has happened in the twentieth century is that there has been a shift from art to advertising / design as the clearest signifier of our times. Much contemporary art is now mining the same vein of fascination for consumerism that designers have been exploring for over a decade.’

The suspicion is that the curators don’t look far outside of the gallery system when nominating artists for this award [The Turner Prize]. This runs counter to the public image the Tate presented in a recent poster and press campaign, which featured images of familiar objects seen in a new way (see Reviews, Eye no. 37 vol. 10). A conker, for example, was presented as resembling an eye, trompe l’oeil fashion: the copy line below proclaimed: ‘eyes opened daily.’

The implication was that this thing called ‘art’ is all around us, if only we open our eyes to see it and that the Tate can facilitate this. Now don’t get me wrong, to argue that all print / Web / film work, etc., should be considered as ‘art’ is as dubious as to claim that all the material on gallery walls is worthwhile, but, as the conker poster campaign illustrates, is it not better to see ‘art’ wherever it may be – and to celebrate it when it is brilliant? The canvas of today’s unsung innovators often isn’t found hanging on a gallery wall.

The work of designers and illustrators has been a huge influence on our visual culture for years. Who else will have wait to see their ‘greatest hits’ recycled – large scale and on canvas – before the establishment sits up and takes notice? I’d like to see galleries hold retrospectives for Syd Mead or Jack Kirby. Yet one wonders if the galleries are even familiar with such artists. Do curators keep their eyes open when they are going down the street, looking for conkers that resemble eyes, or in record stores and bookshops. Do they see the breadth of visual imagery around us?

To see clearly, to leave behind the sophistry and snobbery and celebrate visual creativity wherever it appears. Now that would be a really radical agenda for a modern art museum to champion.

Rian Hughes, illustrator, type designer, Device, London

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

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