When Is Appropriation Just Copying?

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.

comments (0)