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The Spark

Artistic Appropriation or Just Inappropriate?

At Harrisonburg arthouse café,  The Artful Dodger, a painting in a Rashidi Barrett art exhibit struck one visitor as  disturbingly familiar --maybe another artist’s concept.   It was.  Soon news media from Norfolk to Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley were noticing.We hear from Artful Dodger exhibit organizer Paul Somers, from Rashidi Barrett, and also from museum curator Amy Brandt in this "Eye on Art" report from Terry Ward.

See slideshow above for images discussed in the report --and additional images from art history.

Text below is an essay, not a transcript of the radio story; text will vary from broadcast story.


Artistic Appropriation or Just Inappropriate?
The Tale of Street-Pop Artist (and/or Image-Pirate) Rashidi Barrett.

In the Art World, it is sometimes totally okay for one artist to copy from another.  (It depends.)  But also, in the Art World, it is sometimes totally not okay for one artist to copy from another. 

It depends!

And the internet is changing some of the old expectations. 

Norfolk, Virginia-based self-taught street-pop artist Rashidi Barrett (AKA Scott, AKA Scottielish,  AKA DJ Cornbread, AKA TheRealDJcornbread, AKA DJcBREAD) had been using the internet to sell his creations and also to trawl for inspiration.   In early 2013 at Harrisonburg, Virginia arthouse café,  The Artful Dodger, a picture in a Barrett exhibit struck one visitor as  disturbingly familiar --maybe another artist’s concept.  Artful Dodger exhibit organizer Paul Somers then used the web to investigate.

Paul Somers, The Artful Dodger’s exhibit person, told WMRA News this:

We had the (exhibit) opening (reception) and people came and complimented his work and I told him specifically this one piece (of art) of a hand holding a swing with a girl swinging on the swing --I told him it was such a perfect composition and it was so good and clever that I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen it before. And he took that and he was like, 'thanks, man, I worked really hard on it' and just talked to me about it for a while. And then, later that night, a coworker of mine told me that her boyfriend had noticed that specific painting looked similar to another work of art that he thought he had seen. And so, he went home and Googled it and showed it to her, and it was an exact copy. The colors were all the same, the lines were all the same, identical composition; the only difference was that --I believe-- the original artist, Matheus Lopes Castro (AKA Mathiole), created that as an illustration and a digital work of art and Rashidi rendered it on a canvas…. And sometimes he would take a part of 'this' artist's illustration and a part of (‘that’)… artist's illustration and then put those together on a canvas… . At one point I remembered he told me that he had to delete something from his Facebook because someone was saying his painting, The Three Graces, was a ripoff of somebody else's work. And then I thought that was pretty peculiar --and that was before I knew that piece was a copy.

And the artist Rashidi Barrett didn’t dispute that he copied; by phone with WMRA News he said:

Guilty as charged....The story's out there. I painted works of other illustrators. I didn't repaint somebody's paintings. But it doesn't matter. It was somebody else's work. I painted it. And I painted some pieces with miscellaneous intentions, most of which I didn't think were with the intent to harm. But I did. And I sold some of those works and profited from them, both in reputation and financially --not that much financially-- but I mean, a sale is a sale. So. That's what happened. And it was a huge mistake. And I regret it.

When a blog, OldSouthHigh.com, reported Somers’ discoveries under the headline , "Artist Caught Forging" (ref.1), it got picked up: the newspapers in Norfolk and Harrisonburg, a TV-station website, and Richmond’s  “RVA” magazine ran articles.  Without inquiring about the artist’s processes, reporters published  conclusively-judgmental phrases like:  "Scam Artist" (ref.4), "Art Fraud Busted" (ref.4),and "Rashidi Barrett Stole A Career" (ref.5).  It seemed like a career-ending wave of negative publicity.

However:  the articles didn’t describe Barrett’s artistic process and also didn’t consider the centuries-old tradition of  artists copying each other  –“appropriation” in the lingo of the Art World.   (In the interest of full disclosure: this author is also an artist who has done plenty of  artistic appropriation.)  Hiphop musicians do it too (a practice called “sampling” in the music biz) --and Rashidi Barrett was working in urban music discjockeying  at the time.  Barrett didn’t go to art school, and he might have been a bit “fuzzy “ about the semantics of legal appropriation versus simply ripping-off other artists.

For a small word,  copy is a “big” thing --with a wide range of meanings and also with “big” reputation damage-potential if the copying were a kind of cheating.  Copying has variable meanings  --some acceptable and some not.  For clarity, here’s a list of copy-processes to keep in mind:

  • ~ Sampling:  in music, playing bits of another performer’s song
  • ~ Covering:  in music, performing a personal version of someone else’s entire song
  • ~ Appropriation:  in art, adding bits of another artist’s imagery to a new creation.
  • ~ Making a study: in art making a new copy of a known art image for one’s own private use –usually to attempt to understand a master’s techniques.
  • ~ Forgery: in art, making a new copy of a known art image and presenting the new image (usually to an unknowing buyer) as being the original art image –by the other artist.
  • ~ Image-piracy:  in art, taking another artist’s images and presenting them as if they’re one’s own original art  (the visual version of literary plagiarism

The creative world seems to condone the first four items: music-sampling, music-covering, art-appropriation, and making studies.  The last two, art-forgery and image-piracy, are frowned upon --and in some cases, can be legally-actionable.
To explain some nuances, curator Amy Brandt spoke with WMRA News by phone.  Officially, she’s the

McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum of Art (a museum which has no connection to the Barrett events --other than coincidentally sharing the Norfolk area code with him).  Brandt said:

A forgery is an intentional deception for the purposes of financial gain. There are certain Modernist works and also works from other centuries that get forged often --and that's an intentional deceit. Someone has copied the work and is trying to pass it off as a highly-valued work --and that tends to be associated with just pure financial gain and trying to sell the work for a very high price.

Making the very same copy just for personal skills-practice is fine.  Curator Brandt said:

Our artists for centuries have been making studies of other artists' work --that's a part of the process. The study is sort of a preparation. It’s them working out their ideas. That's how they hone in on their own skills. We may now want to purchase 19th Century or 17th Century studies of an artist's work because all of the other works by that artist (are taken). You know: we're interested in that artist's life, we want to know more about their process. In the contemporary (art) world, it’s usually a little bit different in that artists would want to sell or promote their own creative work that's been done (not their studies).

Making the very same copy as a tribute or in a spirit of irony could sell at any gallery.  Brandt said:

In many cases appropriation pays homage to an earlier artist, but it’s done in a way that signals a new concept or new idea or creative concept behind the work. Its typically the artist's intention to sort of make a commentary --to have an idea behind 'why' they are copying. Is it to pay homage? Is it to put forth a new idea based on this older person's work? There has to be some sort of driving force behind why they're making the copy in the first place.

But making the very same picture also could be seen as image-piracy. The crucial difference might be in the intangible realm of:  motive.  Curator Brandt said:

I think it comes down to an artist's intentions --what they meant to produce. I think when you're selling your work and passing it off as your own creative force or expression, and not letting other people know that it is, in fact, a study or a copy --that's I think when an artist can run into trouble.

Some of what Rashidi Barrett told WMRA News hinted that homage or tribute could have been among his intentions.  Barrett said:

A lot of it was: what spoke to me. I really enjoyed everybody that I appropirated from --or stole from-- or whatever. You know, like I, visually, get stuck on things that I find extremely aesthetic, and I'm infatuated with them; I focus on them, you know, that's it. You know, I just think that that was it: if I saw something that I really liked, then I would just go, you know, I would try to replicate it.

Lots of contemporary art hanging in museums uses appropriation --sometimes what looks like blatant copying. Curator Brandt mentioned some:

The first artists that come to mind are what we call the Pictures Artists or the Appropriation Artists of the 1970s and 80s: people like Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince --who were in fact manipulating the language of advertising and the mass media to serve their own artistic purposes. Prince and Levine were rephotographing other artists' work and also advertisements --such as Prince's Marlboro Man-- in order to make their own kind of commentary on the mass media. And in some cases, the only distinguishing factor between their works and the actual advertisements is actual context --the gallery or museum context-- which frames the work and signals that it is not the original and gives you a new --sort of-- a new way to look at the work. It sort of sets it apart from the everyday reality and it's telling you to look at this work in a new way. Sherrie Levine sherephotographedwell known photographers works and she also hand-copied well-known artists' works --Miro, for example, Walker Evans-- but in the case of the hand-crafted drawings, she was using a smaller scale than what you would see from reproductions in art history textbooks. The smaller sort of dimensions in scale signals to you that this is not the original. And also in her titles, she would call these "After ______" and then she would give the other artist's work as a clear indication that that is not the original --it's her copy of it. And that was intended to make a commentary on the Art World and on artistic creativity and how we're all --artists are in many ways always indebted to their predecessors. And just this sort of long lineage of art history made tangible. But in many cases, it is very much about the label. If you are not familiar with Levine's work and you don't see a label next to it, you may think on first glance that it is a Miro, but in fact it's not --so again context, the museum or gallery context, is important.

So sometimes making a painted copy of someone else’s art is fine –even rephotographing someone else’s photo.   What about the 1960s Pop Art-makers like Warhol and Lichtenstein who copied from comic books, product-packaging, and media-photos?   Curator Brandt said:

A lot of elements from Pop Art were not necessarily copied directly. I mean I think they do borrow some motifs, but it has a very strong hand-made quality to it. Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes were in fact carefully hand-fabricated recreations. He in fact sometimes would mis-align the silkscreens in order to purposefully give it a sort of hand-made aesthetic to actually distance it from what you would see in the stores. Roy Lichtenstein, while he was inspired by comics, his paintings were actually produced in a very long and arduous process and he was a very highly-skilled draftsman. He would select a comic. He would manipulate it --sometimes remove elements or add elements. If you really examine his work, you can see that it is in fact hand-painted. It is not quite as industrial-looking as an actual comic book --and that's very much on purpose.

So art history loves Roy Lichtenstein, who made paintings by copying illustrations.  (The auctionhouse loves him too –his canvases usually sell for 8-figures. )  

And Rashidi Barrett wondered aloud: why then should there be so much fuss about him.  Barrett told WMRA News:

I didn't paint a painting from a painting; it was always (from) an illustration. I saw the illustration and I painted it as I saw it. And I know, maybe I'm cut from a different cloth. I just don't. I don't understand, in terms of what --I mean like-- I know what I did was not cool. In terms of: knowing that this has been happening for a long time, I'm just saying that I've seen scores of other artists that have done what I've done and not met the "pitchforks and the torches" as I have. I don't understand it. I don't understand how it's okay that I can't appropriate in the way that the other people have. Degas did it. Cezanne did it. I mean: Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein --those are my idols. I know for a fact that they "appropriate" their as$es off. I don't understand how I'm --what makes "me" the anomaly. I don't know. I really don't know. I could name off like 15 (of my art) pieces right now that should not be deemed "fraudulent" (just) because I took a little piece of an illustration that I saw online. I don't understand it.

Paul Somers, The Artful Dodger’s exhibit person, isn’t impressed:

It was interesting to me that he (Rashidi Barrett) was taking from illustrators. With Warhol, we know he's doing tomato soup cans and is probably doing them specifically because they're this very common image that we know already. Rashidi (Barrett) is much more deceptive and I think more than anything that was a way to mask what he was doing because he couldn't just copy another painter. You know: kind of, slipping out in the dark and grabbing something and then bringing it back and then showing it to people like: "look what I did."

Somers also mentioned an incident of Barrett copying an illustration --and using it as an illustration:

There was one gentleman that posted on his (Rashidi Barrett's) Facebook page: he said, 'I've got your back, no matter what.' And I looked at that guy's profile picture, and it was artwork that Rashidi had done for him for his (the gentleman's) album cover. And so then I wrote him (the gentleman) a Facebook message and was just like: 'you know, I'm really sorry to tell you this, but the artwork that' --the digital artwork now, this wasn't painted on canvas-- 'the digital artwork that he sold you for your album cover belongs to the Polish artist Piotr Klakus (AKA Lafor).' And so then he (the gentleman) immediately responded back and was just like, 'you know, I paid him for that; I can't believe he would do that to me --and my LP is supposed to be released tomorrow.' And now here he (the gentleman) is in a situation where he doesn't own the rights to the cover image as he thought he did. And the fact that Rashidi was able to do that to somebody who was such a good friend to him that despite all of this other controversy and scandal once this came out he was willing to say 'I've still got your back.' And so that, to me, indicated a much deeper issue with Rashidi as a man and a person.

To WMRA News, Rashidi Barrett expressed regret.  He was also surprised that  there has been such a swirl of negativity –especially from people leaving comments on newspaper websites:

I don't know --I have no words for the stuff that I've seen online, man. I, I mean people I don't even know --I mean I got compared to a rapist! You know? I mean, It's insane. Actually my aunt called the other day and I was telling her the story; she said 'hey, it's like that Lauren hill quote: first they nail ya, then they nail ya.' And a lot of my friends are pissed off that I chose to use my talents the way I did. You know, and i can't apologize enough for it.

Not only does the internet make it possible for someone to appropriate from --or rip off as the case may be-- images from all over the world, but also it means that geographic distance no longer insures that wrongdoing avoids detection.  A Virginia artist copying an based in Poland or Brazil --these days could get discovered by web-surfers in Brooklyn or New Zealand.  “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” isn’t how the web-era works.

The internet is also changing people’s perceptions about what is and isn’t acceptable to copy.  Back in the Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein era, there wasn't much concern about a painter copying a comic illustration --once-- to make and sell just one big painting.  Back then, there weren't mass-merchandising websites that run on illustration and digital art.  But today, through websites like like CafePress, VistaPrint, or  DeviantArt, one can sell imprinted t-shirts, totebags, skateboards, posters,  cel-phone covers --just upload your image.  You yourself could make an image and sell some merch --and the odds are you’d be upset if someone copied your picture and started selling rival products.   Today, one can quickly put a copied image into mass-production making t-shirts and posters --cashing in on a copied illustrator’s design.  So back then: copy an illustration, big deal. Today, in the internet-era, copying from illustrations can make one look like an aspiring image-pirate.

And in today's internet-era, if you’re caught doing things that look wrong, the scorn in the form of online comments can come from all over the world too.

See slideshow above for images discussed in the report --and additional images from art history.
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References (news quotes, etc):

1) "Old South High" blog (OldSouthHigh.com) Harrisonburg, VA : "Artful Dodgy: Norfolk Artist Caught Forging Numerous Works" 25 Jan 2013 by "Andrew".

2) Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (VirginiaMOCA.org) Virginia Beach, VA  : "In response to recent news regarding Rashidi Barrett" 28 Jan 2013 by (museum staff).

3) The Virginian-Pilot (HamptonRoads.com) Norfolk, VA : "Norfolk artist Rashidi Barrett admits to copying others" 29 Jan 2013 by Teresa Annas.

4) The Daily News-Record (DNRonline.com) Harrisonburg, VA : "Art Fraud Busted: Artful Dodger Show Exposes Plagiarized Work" 30 Jan 2013 by Jeremy Hunt.

5) "RVA" magazine (RVAmag.com) Richmond, VA "Norfolk Artist Rashidi Barrett Stole A Career" : 31 Jan 2013 by "Tony".

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Music clips used in the radio article from:

Johnny Cash and DJ Pete Rock - "Folsom Prison Blues (Remix)" (youtube)

Peter Schilling "Major Tom (Coming Home)" (youtube)

Shiny Toy Guns - "Major Tom (Coming Home) Remix" (youtube)

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Further reading:
"Legalities" article summarizing contemporary artist-celebrity Jeff Koons' many appearances in court when being sued by other artists he appropriated from --the article gives good advice to artists who would wish to appropriate from other artists.

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