The Good, the Bad, and Appropriation Art

If you are a part of a fine art or comics circle on the internet, you may have seen a story running around in May of 2014 about artist Jeff Koons making an exorbitant amount of money off of a statue of Popeye, yet, the statue was sourced from someone else's work. You may have totally forgotten about it, given the short lifespan of internet rage, or it might be brand new to you. 

Here is what happened: Jeff Koons and his team had made a statue of Popeye, the beloved cartoon character. The statue resembled a children's toy. In fact, it looked exactly like the toy. There were no departures in the character’s form or pose: Koon’s Popeye looked exactly like a bigger more flamboyant version of the toy.

A comics and toy blog discovered this similarity and cried foul play. The comments and tweets amounted to: Hey, why should Jeff Koons make all this money if he ripped off someone’s toy? Shouldn’t the maker of the toy get some money, or maybe some credit? This person is making 28 million dollars off of someone else’s design. Big art is such bullshit!

Comic book and cartoon creators were up in arms about this for at least a few days. I even sent a nervous, self-interested tweet about it. Deep down I was disappointed at the negativity of this intersection between art and comics. This was a Lichtensteinian moment where the comics world briefly touched with the art world, and everyone in comics was hating the art world for making an exorbitant amount of money off of someone else’s original work.



Comics has a bit of a sore spot about this, and in fact, everyone who creates a character has fears about it. What if someone takes my character? What if someone does something with the character that isn’t good?


Just drive down any interstate in the United States, and you’ll probably see a decal of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes peeing on a Chevy logo, or a Ford logo. This is an instance of appropriation art that hurts the original artist, the artist’s vision, and the degrades the public’s vision of the art. But, nobody is going to jail for it. People who otherwise could make an honest living keep making money off of it. 


Eventually it was discovered that Koons had permission to replicate the toy into an art item. The bloggers had the magnanimity to admit it openly. This came out as a relatively quiet afterwards to the flaming gust of internet outrage.


Well, of course he had permission, though. 


In 20/20 hindsight, a successful and business-minded artist like Jeff Koons wouldn’t be dumb enough to have his studio full of employees start work on a 20+ million dollar statue that was a rip off. Why would he put himself and his workers at that kind of legal risk?


But what if he was that dumb? What if he did make that blatant of a rip off?


Shortly after the Popeye Incident, artist Richard Prince made the mistake of doing just this, by framing a show at the Gagosian featuring screencaptures of other people’s instagram photos.


Imagine you are a 18-year-old girl with 425 followers on Instagram. You haven’t always been the most popular girl at school, but, you are getting more popular on Instagram. You snap a photo of yourself with your iPhone, mentally assuming that the only person who sees it will be your friends at school and your sister maybe. Maybe you are trying to get a cute photo of yourself so you can impress the 4 popular girls that follow you, and also the boy in your physics class. Maybe if you get just the right angle on this just-risque-enough photo, he will notice.


You post the photo of yourself in a cute pose. You are hoping for ten likes. Maybe with enough hashtags you'll get 25 likes. 


And you don’t think about it again.


But then, one day, somebody you have never heard of comments on that photo, screencaptures both the photo and the comment, and then blows up the photo into a 30 x 40 image, and puts it into an art gallery for thousands of people to see. Without asking you. You may never even know.


This is what Richard Prince did with photos from some users, ahem, people on Instagram. Unfortunately for Prince, he happened to screencap and try to sell the work of photographer Donald Graham, who didn’t take too kindly to it. Why would Graham take kindly to it? Graham had invested time and money in going to Jamaica to get the photo. Now some jerk is selling a copy-paste print of his photo with a pricetag of $80,000 - $100,000! 


Life is unfair, but art is evil.


To Prince’s credit, whether Prince intended his Instagram show to have this message or not, what he ended up showing us was the dark fact that we never quite know who is watching our feeds.


If we put something on the internet… who knows what people will choose to do with it. Legally, they can probably do whatever they want with little to no issue. This is a disquieting message.


Also of point, the only people who came out to combat Prince or Koons were mostly other artists.  After all, who else would notice that someone’s photo was being stolen? And, a fan of Popeye would probably just remotely appreciate the Popeye statue instead of feeling a blaze of injustice radiating from its every facet. So, Prince may have succeeded in trolling the art world, but, the rest of the world doesn't really care, or, they continue to see the art world as a circle of jerks who have no real new ideas.  


Both situations and how they were framed initially hurt the credibility of art as an enterprise. For Koons, it was the framing of the situation that caused a problem. For Prince, it was the actual situation causing the harm.


Why write about these instances now, in 2016? That Popeye sculpture is gathering dust in Las Vegas! Isn't new art the only art worth writing about? 


Both events, though similar and both involving appropriation art, leave a lasting effect on understandings of art as an enterprise, even though each story seemed to just light a short-lived internet fire. 


In the case of Koons and Popeye, we ultimately get optimistic, empowered narratives about appropriation and art in general:


What if someone likes my comics character so much that they ask to make art or products about it? Would I say yes? I have the power to say no.

I know I am protected by copyright law.

People might try to steal my characters or my work, but I have the power to fight this.


Given Prince’s Gagosian show, the logic of art as a viable enterprise breaks down significantly into more pessimistic, fear-driven narratives:


Why try to tell a new story or make a unique work if someone could just steal my vision? Famous artists steal all the time.

Why should I put in hard work to make something new when I could easily rip off other people? Famous artists steal all the time.

To be a professional artist, do I need a good lawyer?

This photo that I took is really cool. I better not post it on Instagram.