Interviews

When Is Appropriation Just Copying?

by Jillian Steinhauer on December 14, 2012

A side-by-side comparison that Jason Levesque made of his work and Josafat Miranda’s (click to enlarge) (all images via Levesque’s Tumblr)

Artist Jason Levesque was down in Miami last week, wandering around Scope art fair, when he noticed something: work by an artist named Josafat Miranda that looked exactly like his own. Miranda had taken photographs shot by Levesque years ago and painted them nearly to a tee — recreations with added color and flair. He had done the same thing with some photos shot by Marie Killen. Miranda’s pieces were being sold for $4,000 a piece at a gallery booth at Scope.

Levesque didn’t say anything at the time, but a few days later, he lined up the pairs of images side by side and posted about it on Tumblr. The post went viral, newspapers picked up the story, and the repercussions for Miranda were swift: within days, Robert Fontaine Gallery had pulled his work, canceled his pending sales, dropped him from its roster, and denounced him.

“Now everything is all fucked up,” Miranda told the Miami New Times. “I don’t have a gallery. I don’t have a job. I don’t have any way to make money … Now nobody wants to buy my work, even though most of it isn’t a copy of anything.”

The quick turnaround was, in some ways, vindicating for Levesque, but he’s also the first to admit that it was a bit extreme. The outrage, especially on the part of the dealer (“I don’t want anything more to do with him,” Fontaine told the Times), is curious, given the relatively lax attitude the art world has had to the never-ending Carious v. Prince saga. That may simply speak to the different crowds involved here — Levesque got his start on DeviantArt; Prince is a blue-chip art star. But it brings us back, once more, to those age-old questions: when appropriation is appropriation, and when is it copying? What constitutes transformative or fair use? And though we may never admit it, is fair use really just determined by money?

Intrigued by all this, I called Levesque for a quick chat, to talk to him about what happened and his reaction to the aftermath.

*   *   *

Jillian Steinhauer: How did you feel when you saw Miranda’s work at Scope?

Jason Levesque: Well, my interview with the other people was pretty brief, and they used the word “shocked,” which I specifically remember not using. I was never shocked; this kind of stuff happens all the time. I’m definitely surprised, but “shocked” kind of suggests, “I can’t believe this happened.” My stuff — the photography, which I don’t do anymore — gets lifted all the time. Even my drawings get lifted all the time.

JS: Really?

JL: Yeah. I had one guy overseas who was tracing my drawings and then selling and licensing them to clubs for flyers. My fans blew up the page of the club, who had no idea. The people who get screwed the most sometimes are art buyers and galleries who have a lot of money invested. I’m not gonna sell less art because someone’s copying me.

A Miranda-Killen comparison (click to enlarge)

JL: I saw the piece at Basel, in the Scope art fair. My first reaction was to laugh. My friends were like, “Oh my God, say something to the people who are exhibiting,” and I was like, “No, I’ll sit on it.”

So I thought about it for a while, and I was like, somebody really needs to say something. If those pieces sell and then this comes out, those people will have spent $4,000 on something that’s universally thought of as a fraud, and that’s not good. And to see my friend Marie’s work also being copied — when I looked him up on the internet, and there were at least eight pieces he had copied from her. Marie is not very well known, and there’s something very unfair about that.

I’ve seen arguments, people saying things from I should be flattered to I should write him a letter and try to collaborate with him, to suing to violence in the street. That’s the internet. I feel like the way I handled it was probably the right way. I’ve written artists directly before, but an artist that is that committed is very unlikely to pull their work on their own. There’s a natural consequence to this: ever since middle school, if you try to trace Spider Man and pass it off as your own, it’s one of those universal things that people don’t like to see. So I made my post and put it out there. I regret mentioning the gallery name, because I should have known better. I know that they didn’t have anything to do with it, and then the gallery had to publicly show that they were not involved in it. I feel like that was a mistake. But I did feel like the artist himself needed to be exposed.

JS: It’s strange, though, because the reaction in this case has been so strong, while with something like the Prince-Cariou case, there’s been very little public outcry. It’s strange how the responses can be so different.

JL: I’ve actually really enjoyed the public conversation that has happened. This isn’t something that most schools cover; they don’t cover fair use. They don’t cover the difference between what Andy Warhol did and what this artist has done — the difference being that it was universally known that Andy Warhol was copying from a well-known image. That is entirely different from finding a young, struggling artist’s piece of work. I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten the most balanced support from my peers that I consider successful, people who have dealt with these situations before. It’s one of those things where there’s so much gray scale.

JS: Is there a way in which Miranda could have used your work differently that would have been OK?

JL: He could have styled a similar shoot. He could have done a completely different pose. He could have done them in a way that’s like, “This reminds me of your work.” That’s the majority of emails I get, and I see those and think, good for those artists for being inspired. He could have recreated them in a different way, but at this point it was everything: styling, composition, and lines — really a tracing with some dots added.

In his defense, I don’t think that he’s untalented. From what’s left on Google Image search — there isn’t much — it seems like he was a talented artist. My hope is, in the art world you can reinvent yourself; artists do that all the time. I believe he’s talented enough to pull that off.

JS: You’ve mentioned that you don’t do photography anymore. When are these pictures Miranda used from?

JS: These photos are from six years ago. I first got started when I was kid, drawing of course, and I drew from photo references. I posted them on DeviantArt, usually with a credit, but as soon as I started to get a fan base, I knew that’s not the way to do it. I cleaned up my act by the time, years later, when I had real fans. It was just that point that every artist realizes, I need to be working completely with my own materials. By the time you’re in a gallery selling $4,000 pieces of work, you should have figured it out by then.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • http://njwv.wordpress.com/ manyfaces

    “the difference between what Andy Warhol did and what this artist has done — the difference being that it was universally known that Andy Warhol was copying from a well-known image. That is entirely different from finding a young, struggling artist’s piece of work.”

    This. There’s no indication that these are from someone else’s work. Which is what makes them a lie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mr.Budd Egan Budd
    • http://www.facebook.com/tomburtonwood Tom Burtonwood

      right. i’ve been following this story the last week and i can’t help but see the rabbit ears as an almost direct lift from Gummo,

      • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

        You can’t copyright an idea though… anyone can do the rabbit ear thing. There is a huge difference between that and lifting an image line for line, if you will.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Yeah, I have to agree with Brian here: you can’t copyright the use of bunny ears. Many people have used and will continue to use bunny ears. It’s like Koons trying to sue over balloon dog bookends. Balloon dogs are a cultural thing; so are bunny ears.

  • Daniel Gonzalez Lozano

    check out this other ‘appropriationist’ http://www.ricardoreyesarte.com/perfil_artista.php?id_a=11. Alert Jeff Koons! He’s winning prizes in mexico LOL

    • Coughdrop

      I like his stuff better than Koons…

    • anthony cudahy

      I don’t see how this relates to this article in the least.

  • scottfxx

    The issue is that there was no transformation here, just rank copying in a different media and even that could have been computer aided. But regardless- $4000? A lot of fools with a lot of money apparently…..

  • Den Hickey

    “Now everything is all fucked up,” Miranda told the Miami New Times.
    “I don’t have a gallery. I don’t have a job. I don’t have any way to
    make money … Now nobody wants to buy my work, even though most of it
    isn’t a copy of anything.”

    Yeah, but once you have copied so many pieces by other artists without adding anything at all, how are your gallery, your buyers, etc.. supposed to know if what they are getting from you is an actual original idea or a copy of someone else’s who hasn’t found out you copied them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but it often seems that a lot of the writers involved with Hyperallergic, including Hrag, embrace a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’. Additionally, you have artists like Joy Garnett who act as if photographers should have no rights. This article is an example of what would happen if a wide interpretation of ‘fair use’ were the standard. We would end up with with situations like this in ever gallery. This is why I support copyright so strongly. If you need to work from a photograph… how hard would it be to take the picture yourself?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I think the problem, as always, is that no one can agree on what constitutes fair use. I support copyright, too, but I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “take the photo yourself.” You can never get the exact shot yourself, and even if you replicate the photo to a tee and THEN paint it, you’re not really avoiding the core issue, which is that you’re copying, not transforming. But again, that question of transformative use is impossibly subjective, and then you end up with judges deciding.

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        I also don’t think there was a legal case here. I think the more egregious issue is that lack of citation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

      I doubt anyone would call this fair use. Certainly not under under current legal practice where at least some hint of commentary or cultural reference is necessary to the claim.

      Even if you went so far as to disregard the importance of a cultural contribution (to hell with transformative use– which is what I’d love to see!) most people would regard such blatent copying as a market intervention which should be stopped.

      I can think of no one who would be on the side of Miranda.

    • http://twitter.com/kellyannart Kellyann GilsonLyman

      Brian, In all my appropriation of warhol imagery or concept. I love the articulation based upon Warhols value. If you received 50,000 for your first edition, the 5000 for 5 limited editions…imagine as an artist what you would create. I photograph all works myself, seek out proper authorization & credit, even % of sales. I do tend to create & articulate large works, so I loved working with Jackie O appropriations, during the Metropolitan Museum of Arts | 60 artist | 50 years | regarding warhol exhibition. My editions are my response to this exhibition utilzoing my printmaking process & laser etched youth vision campaign on Jackie O. See beauty in what you do! kellyannart

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    Also, I wonder if the public — in general — is looking for (wanting) more authenticity. In the last few years we have seen the likes of Prince and Fairey make these issues big news.. and I wonder if that has spurred viewers to expect authenticity rather than re-hashed images. I mean, if you look at comments left on articles about Fairey… it is pretty clear that he went from hero to zero in the sense that his deception in court really turned a lot of people off.

  • samthor

    amateurs copy, professionals steal.
    none of us create in a vacuum… but that’s no excuse to be lazy about it.

  • jdb

    This may or may not be bullshit but it certainly is blustery. Seems that it took Levesque a few days to contemplate the relevance of $4000 dollars which is the only surprising thing here. Good though that he noticed that he has gotten the most support from his peers he deems successful.
    I did get a kick out of how a grown up artist works with materials completely there own. It was even funnier after a brief trip to his website. To be fair he has made many of his materials in a way all his own. But over all it is a pleasing mix of clever but not particularly novel use of the familiar arranged in a way that is sure to please targeted viewers; nothing wrong with that it is what good graphic design does, it is what Miranda was doing.
    Did that $4000 dollars make Levesque feel like MIranda was picking on him? We wouldn’t be talking about this if Levesque had found the work on DiviantArt selling for nothing (Levesgue might be, but we would not). Money makes the art world go around; I have figured that out by now and thats fine. But sometimes money makes it boring and pedantic too. Sometimes money makes it callow, lets not pretend that’s noble.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I would add an addendum that money makes the whole word go round, not just the art world.

      • jdb

        I totally agree with you (in the metaphorical sense of course) Jillian. I am prone to digression and was just trying to stay focused.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          You did fine staying focused! And of course just cause money makes the whole world go round doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about money making the art world go round. I think your point about money coming into play here was dead on. That’s why I linked to one of Cat Weaver’s pieces about the Cariou v. Prince case in the post above that’s about the money question, too.

  • Jringstad

    How laborious and seemingly boring,to copy another work in that manner, without getting the satisfaction- kick- giggles- wink of acknowledging; “I just copied this- and added some dots. How do you like it.?”

  • http://twitter.com/SebastianGreer Sebastian Greer

    My personal opinion is that Miranda did copy straight from Levensque. However i see 2 issues raised- lets say HYPOTHETICALLY Miranda literally just had the exact same idea as Levensque and had never seen his work before. How do we deal with this? One artist did it first, so does he/she get priority? As well as this, can we assume that the people who might have purchased Miranda’s work for $4000 didn’t know that the work was appropriated? Maybe some people knew but simply preferred the drawings. Is the original always unquestionably superior? Gimme ur thoughts!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amy-Coyle/1310261746 Amy Coyle

      Interesting…I’ve wondered about your first point myself. They say that nothing is really new anymore, just a reinterpretation. But in this specific case, I believe it was straight-up copying…I bet that Miranda knew deep down it was wrong and it could come back to bite him…though maybe not to this extreme! I suppose the golden rule applies to copying living artists–how would you feel if someone lifted your art so blatantly? Do unto others…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

    Concept is dead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000405617907 Cat Weaver

    Rabbit ears are not a concept. Young, confused teens in rabbit ears have become a bit of a meme.

    A broad empty one, though cute.

    What do you think of the repetition of repetition?

    So here’s the problem with commentary…Miranda could have said, “Hey, I took a particularly unoriginal piece of much repeated schlock and copied it as if in earnest in order to get some art phonies to clambor for it” — that’s MY concept.”

    Suddenly he’d have a case that could hold water in court. Especially if he were a puffed up dealer’s pet art-idiot. You know, like Rob Pruitt. Pruitt copied a freaking T-shirt design created by some obscure graphic artists (who had, in their turn pilfered a photo) and two thirds of the world defended him (while the other third defended the graphic aritists). They all cried out about originality and everyone argued about concept and no one argued about spin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.kubat.1 Matthew Kubat

    these 2 links is a perfect example of how “artists” out there are tracing photograhs and using them as their own “original artwork” ….pretty sad use of “creativity” if you ask me. http://www.jetpsa.com/stewgrad/stewgrad/7306b.jpg http://www.flickr.com/photos/brianddowns/8461715337/sizes/k/in/photostream/

Previous post:

Next post: