Today's post on Ed Winklman's blog, ruminating on commercial entertainment vs fine art culture, has got me going. Lately there's been some play on the blogs about the phenomenon of ads ripping off art, and as intimated in a recent post by Tyler Green over on MAN, that kind of thing - ads 'stealing' motifs from the fine art realm - is pretty much old hat, and something that's been going on for quite a while. Recent examples of the phenomenon are cited on greg.org (AT&T's 'The Gates'), Artnet (The Felixified Vonage ad), and the latest, on MAN: the IBM rip (or riff, depending on how you look at it), which is an animated unmistakable 'version' of a Julie Mehretu painting - Yes, Julie Mehretu, who is now part of the branding of Wall St. since her monumental Goldman Sachs public commission...
- [ouch - doesn't anyone else delight in these ironies?] -
When a commenter over at MAN invoked the Apple iPhone ad and the kerfuffle with Christian Marclay some years back, I had to pause. For those who don't know the story: Apple approached Marclay about using his piece 'Telephone', a typically clever montage of telephone clips, for their new iPhone ad, and when he refused, they made one without him - a rip or riff of his montage. Same idea, different montage. He couldn't really sue them, though he wanted to and almost tried, because - duh - his own work was thoroughly sourced (w/out permission or credit) from the entertainment world, constructed entirely of appropriated clips from movies. Plus their montage was their own remix of 'telephones' clips, not his. Choice.
So anyway, why call it a ripoff when a commercial firm references an artwork and not the other way around? Why not see it as fair use in both these instances? As far as I can see, all of the uses cited here are 'transformative' - that is, they borrow from something and they make something new. The problem is that if one holds corporations' feet to the fire on this one, one also has to hold artists' feet to the same fire: namely, one would produce yet another obstacle to creative license (pun intended) when it comes to referencing pre-exisitng stuff - whether that stuff be fine art, advertising, music, what-have-you. That would be a very bad thing indeed.
Funny: we happen to be in the middle of just such a nasty battle...
There's a good, simple illustration of referencing that shows why it's a good thing, and how it isn't stealing; an example we can all relate to that shows how referencing that doesn't mention that it's referencing, much less name it's sources, can be edifying and even 'educational': Bugs Bunny. (I was reminded of Bugs by Jonathan Lethem in his interview in the previous post). It's just one example among many from our cartoon childhoods, but Bugs stands out. Anyone who grew up watching Bugs knows his knack for impersonation. He has shown up as Hitchcock, sung opera, and conducted symphony orchestras. He has enacted the cartoon version of the personas of any number of historical and cultural figures, played their music, painted their pictures, and screwed with them in any number of ways. Many of us grew up watching Bugs and friends and so many other cartoon characters spin and riff and rip 'high art', not knowing exactly what those references were or where they came from, not knowing we were actually listening to Tchaikovsky (or whatever). But chances are, we had a good sense that something else was going on, that there was another layer of meaning, something else from our culture, that was being introduced, gently, into our childhood experience. Things that we would otherwise never have had an inkling of til much later, if at all.
Sometimes the recognition comes later, sometimes it doesn't. The fact is, it doesn't matter if you don't get the references. Some people will get them, and others won't. And that's okay. The point is, individuals (as well as companies) need to be free to make them.