Tech Blogs Discover Art World, Copyright Soul-Searching Ensues

Glenn Brown, “Ornamental Despair (Painting For Ian Curtis) Copied from the Stars Like Dust, 1986 by Chris Foss” (1994) (image via Sotheby’s)

A delayed furor has erupted in the tech blogosphere over Sotheby’s London £3.5 million (~$5.8 million) sale last October of Glenn Brown’s “Ornamental Despair (Painting For Ian Curtis) Copied from the Stars Like Dust, 1986 by Chris Foss.” At issue is the work’s literal replication — as might be gleaned from its title — of cover art by Chris Foss for an Isaac Asimov book. The painting is typical of Brown’s practice: “copies” as formal explorations grounded in an art-historical coda to originality. Nonetheless, Brown has been sued for his work in the past. The Turner Prize recipient settled out of court a 2000 suit brought against him by Anthony Roberts, who had illustrated a Robert Heinlein cover the artist based a piece upon.

The limits of copyright and transformative use were hotly contested in 2013 as Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince made its way through the courts. That case is now over, having been decided in favor of the copyright “thief,” Prince. Though the tech press largely ignored Cariou v. Prince, many blogs in that field frequently advocate against copyright laws in various forms. (See, for example, this post from last week on BoingBoing.)

But what happens when loyalties cross? In the case of Brown, it would appear that BoingBoing’s affinity for science fiction has won out, with an item yesterday slamming his “plagiarized” painting:

If you’re ever frustrated when someone looks at modern art and dismisses it out of hand, or assumes that the artist and the business are a conspiracy of pretentious idiots and fraudsters, just remember that people like Brown are why.

Not all who wander are lost, however. In a surprisingly lucid (though inevitably flawed) explainer of “modern art” posted at Scientific American (and discussed by io9 in a follow-up to their controversy-initiating story), the theory underpinning the appropriated work of artists like Brown and Prince is laid out. After a breezy survey of key developments (Mondrian, Indiana, the internet), the writer concludes:

Glenn Brown’s ripped-off science-fiction cover is worth millions because we spend all day reblogging pictures of FireflyMy Little Pony mash-ups on Tumblr without giving a shit about the mash-up artist’s name (or even deeper, the names of the artists who designed the Firefly cast’s costumes or the My Little Pony characters in the first place).

Fine art culture is holding up a big expensive mirror at you and internet culture right now.

Just the kind of level-headed reassurance that all of us — or at least Richard Prince, who also copies book covers, and Larry Gagosian, whose gallery represents both Prince and Brown — can get behind.

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