Of Pandas, People and Copyright Infringement In the Arts

Recently a very very small kerfuffle has broken out in the New York Art and Design community.  Rob Pruitt apparently used an image made by Threadless Design contributors Jimiyo and AJ Dimarucot in his show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprises, specifically in the piece above his right shoulder that looks like the sort of throw rug you’d see for sale hung on the fence of an abandoned lot in one of the downtrodden recesses of Los Angeles or Oakland:

In response, Threadless formed a flashmob at the gallery to protest:
Day 276: When Silent Pandas Attack!

On Twitter, this event led to some debate between @TheodoreArt, @hragv, @joygarnett, @artfagcity, @gregorg and @markbilly8.

Overall the conversation was nuanced, ultimately coming down to 2 issues: A) To what degree should artists be expected to source the material they appropriate and B) Rob Pruitt is a douche.

Obviously the most important question this brings up is whether there is a distinction between being a “douche” versus a “douchebag.”  “Douche” is the noun describing the act of douching. A “douchebag” is a receptacle for the liquid to be used during that act.  Therefore, is it reasonable to surmise that a “douche” is a person who is unfavorable for his actions, while a douchebag’s unfavorability lies primarily with what they are comprised of, their internal essence?  I think so. Remind me to propose this as a standardization of form later.

The less interesting question regards sourcing.  Is sourcing a brutal imposition upon the creative process, or is it easy and polite enough to be expected?

I don’t care.

In this instance the ability of the original artists to profit was not hurt- and was probably helped by the publicity, but Pruitt’s refusal to easily acknowledge that such a large portion of an artwork that isn’t intended to be about re-contextualization (and kind of sucks) is, strictly speaking, totally douchey.

Instead, what interests me, as the reference at the top suggests, is the issue of evolution v. creationism.  “Of Pandas And People” is a textbook written to teach creationism in the classroom.  Its only actual relevance here is that pandas made me think of it, and it made me consider this issue as one of Creation v. Evolution.

Should artists source the images they reference? Why? If the example at hand is not an example of progress being halted by decreased profit motivation (and this isn’t) then these issues are typically wgo driven.  “You like that? Then you should like ME too.  Maybe even better because I was first!”

Other people’s ego-dramas don’t benefit me much.  I am interested in the work, the creation that is presented to me, regardless of where it came from.

This would be Creationism.  I believe it pertains to this article linked to by @TheodoreArts.  Artists, like everybody, process the world according to the information they are subjected to.  When they re-present that information it is created anew each time.  While the creator isn’t irrelevant, the creation itself is the primary

The Evolutionary view modifies this.  It doesn’t deny the view that ideas are made anew by each presenter but perceives and emphasizes the process as dialogue.  Not only do the individual iterations of the ideas matter, but the space between them- the relationship between them is important, possibly moreso than the individual creations themselves.  On that level, citation and sourcing is vital to participating and understanding the dialogue at issue.

If the artist would like to engage on this level, within the temporal flow of the ideas, then citation is important to inform viewers- i.e. other potential participants- of the discussion.

Personally, I would place myself in the Evolution camp.  As much as I love ideas, their existence over time excites me even more.

Do I believe there is a moral necessity for citation by appropriators?  Not necessarily. The extent of references that can be linked to any idea is too much to reasonably represent.  Should I credit the entire history of creationism and evolution to fully explain the origin of this post? Utility disappears at some point.

Where utility does exist for tracing this path, that process is itself a creative act.  As @gregorg pointed out, tracing the source of these ideas helps employ Art Historians (Or as @BDPNT put it, ” evolution didn’t leave a road map. That’s why we have biologists.”).

However, these arguments have a limit. When a reference is direct and necessary to a piece (such as basing the majority of the design of your glorified beach towel on a single appropriated image) the proper path is credit.  (Actually, in this case the best path probably would have been not to make the stupid piece in the first place, but that’s beside the point.)

Going even deeper, as @markbilly8 and @gregorg have pointed out, the lack of citation by Pruitt actually resulted in a progression of the dialogue.  The response of Threadless contributors and fans to flashmob the gallery, complete with a person in a panda suit, is probably better than the piece they were protesting or the hipster t-shirt it ripped off.  To say nothing of the twitter conversation and this masterpiece of blogging.  Not crediting his source led to a better dialogue than the piece ever would have.

An art creationist might punch me in the shoulder, smug in the example of ideas progressing of their own accord regardless of citation, but my Evolutionist roots note that these ideas still originated from the search for and identification of sourcing.  Whether this arose from the artist himself or others is more a statement of Pruitt’s intellectual honesty than anything else.

The question remains, however, as to whether the flash mob had an obligation to credit Southpark’s “Sexual Harassment Panda” during their act.

As always, I wish I had a point,



5 Responses to “Of Pandas, People and Copyright Infringement In the Arts”

  1. a very enjoyable read! i laughed, i scratched my head, i laughed again.

  2. The pejorative use of the term, “douchebag, in my belief is that it goes back to patriarchy and the degree to which one is a tool within it or depends upon the utility of patriarchy for advantage for a thing, especially as it pertains to relations with women. (Please see for example, Sean Hannity)

    Citing references in visual art is as lame as a comedian explaining a joke. One either gets it or doesn’t get it. I’m sure Charles Darwin would have written this into his theories if he had experienced The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was around. Now can’t we all just evolve just a little?

  3. I suspect I am with Andrew on this!

    • Replying to myself: I actually want to qualify that statement. The problem with what Pruitt used in this case, is that the reference was too obscure to:

      1) be noticed, let alone appreciated, by most people
      2) have any sort of meaningful reverberation
      3) be appreciated by the overworked, underpaid artists who created the original image

      If you lift an obscure graphic from a struggling pop artist, you fail in a big way.

  4. The Panda in the photo was once appropriated by me in an informal photo shoot while he was performing Punch me Panda at Hyperallergic’s Outpost in Bushwick.

    As to the question of crediting source material,
    If an image is referenced in a straightforward and obvious way, without intentional re-contextualizing as homage or otherwise, such as Bob Dylan does in his current shitty Gagosian show, and isn’t credited, then the artist should be held accountable for charlatanism, if that’s a word. Not that Dylan can fucking draw or paint.

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