Every week, I scan the media for interesting conversations about art. This week, the best stories included a debate about appropriation art and an unexpected riddle about America’s most popular painting.
“Stop, Thief! My Cartoon Gets Appropriated,” by David Sipress, NewYorker.com
Ace New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress has a bone to pick with Karl Haendel.
Or, really, he thinks Haendel has picked a bone from him: Sipress is dismayed to discover that the LA-based artist has appropriated whole a Sipress New Yorker cartoon—or rather, Haendel made an exact graphic drawing of it, signature and all, and incorporated it into a larger installation describing Sipress’s image as “a Jewish-American themed cartoon from the New Yorker.”
(Haendel’s installation, called the Mazel Tov Group, was on view at the Henry Art Gallery last year; social media brought the appropriation to Sipress’s attention.)
I happen to like Haendel’s graphite work, which has an elegantly brainy, seductively aerated quality. Sipress’s article is fun to read nevertheless, partly because he fully acknowledges the viscerally personal nature of his disgust at being appropriated, and responds irreverently, with mockery and also more cartoons.
Generally, where you fall on “appropriation” depends on whether you are more likely to be appropriated, or to benefit by appropriating. Artists and anyone moving images around on the web generally defend appropriation as creatively transformative. But photographers, for instance, tend to hate appropriation (as do, evidently, cartoonists), since their images are routinely ripped off.
Here’s Sipress’s take on the affair, which references a Sotheby’s lot featuring the Haendel installation in question:
In my research for this essay, I came across an auction estimate for the “Mazel Tov Group” of between forty thousand and sixty thousand dollars. Yikes! My original drawing of the “Jewish-American themed cartoon from The New Yorker” was bought a few years ago, for a tiny fraction of that estimate. But, then again, it was only the real thing. I’ll get over it. One friend tells me that I should be “flattered” to be used in this fashion. Obviously, I’m not there yet.
It’s an obvious point, but it’s not made enough: you can’t overstate how much money and profit comes into what gets considered fair. The visceral irritation of Sipress is also a reflection of the perceived relative status and security of different kinds of media.
When I was a docent at the Walker Art Center, a curator instructed us how to explain classic-era “Pictures” art by figures like Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, et al., to the public.
The curator said that in the 1980s, these artists had gone on an “image strike,” refusing to add images to the world as a form of protest against the capitalist image machine. Appropriation was framed, in other words, as a tool of the little guy, whose hijacking was a dissident act against advertising, old-school art, etc.
That appropriation-as-a-tool-of-the-underdog justification probably never fit the public’s image of what was going on in art galleries. But in that moment, it had at least a kind of rhetorical power as a defense that it may lack now.
In the last 10 years, there has been a dramatic shift in how images circulate. For all of the ‘90s and most of the ‘00s, “free culture” was viewed not just as a nice thing, but practically as a political cause to champion. In the 2010s, however, with the definitive commercialization of the web and the centralization of its profits by a few companies, “free culture” came to be seen more and more as another way to destroy the businesses of anyone who made a living off anything that could be easily copied: journalism, photography, music, etc.
Instead of providing a productive critique of Big Media capital—of restrictive copyright laws and monolithic media voices—appropriation art’s defense of itself now sounds a lot like the logic of Big Internet capital, which wants to have access to everything, for free, without producing anything itself, and sell itself as a tool for everyone else to do the same.
In the face of this, art remains one of the last business models out there.
Thus, the Wu-Tang Clan a few years ago resorted to selling off an album as a unique auction item (with disastrous results) specifically because that seemed to be a more viable business model than anything else available. The more tech and finance have sucked up the goods of the new economy, the more they have to spend on luxury goods and pet projects.
And this means, pardoxically, that “appropriation” in art will sound less radical (because everyone on the internet is copying and pasting images all the time), while at the same time certain defenses of “appropriation” are going to sound more and more like opportunistic justifications about how culture should be free (for tech to profit off of).
I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. It’s possible that, economically, Sipress’s original cartoons and reputation will grow by becoming mixed and mashed up in art, gaining new levels of meaning and thus new value to new audiences. But I do think it’s worth wondering whether artists, critics, and curators don’t need some new ways to talk about appropriation art, given the changing place of both art and appropriation in the image economy.
“Best of the Best,” Art.com Magazine
I have seen America’s favorite painting. It is Dog Gone Funny.
This comes courtesy of the latest copy of Art.com Magazine, the free mailer from the Walmart-owned art prints site. Flipping through it, as I do every month, I come upon its list of most popular prints. Number two, for reference, is Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) from 1949, licensed from the Guggenheim collection.
I refrain from commenting on the whole list, though it’s worth noting that colorful abstractions and funny animals are the winning formulae on Art.com, and comforting and inspirational are the dominant emotional tones.
Let us simply pause to pay homage to Dog Gone Funny, truly a masterpiece for our time. Heffernan specializes in humanized animals of a goofy—and sometimes slightly odd, more-adult-than-you-would expect—variety. (50 Scents of Grey, for example, features a dog reading a smutty book of the same title, with a canine butt on the cover that reads, “Scratch and Sniff.”)
In Dog Gone Funny, she has clearly tapped straight into America’s aesthetic main nerve, combining toilet humor and anthropomorphic animals. It is a post-Dogs Playing Poker masterpiece.
Like that legendary painting, though—whose protagonists turn out to be Freemasons, did you know?—there are unexpected layers. Would you believe me if I told you that Dog Gone Funny contains a political riddle for our time?
Our protagonist is reading his hometown newspaper, the Canine Daily. We cannot see what is amusing the dog so much. The headline is “MAN BITES DOG.” Below the fold, the story is “Cat Burglar Strikes Again.” There is also a picture of a fire hydrant, another little spritz of pee humor.
But the second story down is “Bark Obama Approves Universal Vet Care,” accompanied by a picture of a paw print of the canine president signing the bill. It’s actually positioned below a photo of a terrier with a bandaged eye, which seems to also go with “MAN BITES DOG,” so it could be that this momentous act of free veterinary care was triggered by a galvanizing act of unexpected, news-making, human-on-dog aggression.
What, I wonder, does America think when it sits on the toilet every day and contemplates Dog Gone Funny? (And that’s definitely where people are looking at it; if you have a friend who has Dog Gone Funny in their den or bedroom, have a talk with them.)
Don’t get me wrong, I know that America mainly doesn’t think too hard about this picture. But it’s not like the headline is “Dogald J. Trump Builds Anti-Cat Wall.” It’s specifically exactly the opposite of that.
What thought floats through the mind? I mean, the human Affordable Care Act wasn’t really universal healthcare, and its gains have been slowly strangled and undercut. But our dog friend is laughing; the vibes are positive. Why is this America’s art in 2020?
Is it nostalgia for an alternate, optimistic world—before the Trump times? Is it some kind of unprocessed suburban misconception that Obama “solved healthcare”? Or does it represent some kind of ambient popular idea that actual universal healthcare is just a fundamentally positive thing—like a happy dog, perhaps?
Healthcare is the hottest political issue of the age. For whom does the dog laugh?
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