Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Plagiarism 4: The Art of Copyright

I started several weeks ago discussing copyright and plagiarism in response to the accusations of plagiarism against Helene Hegemann in her (still best-selling) novel Axolotl Roadkill. In seeing if there were any new articles about her, specifically, I see there hasn't been much of anything since the story broke, but I did see this particular article that interviews the person whose text she used/stole for her novel.

In one of those weird twists of fate or coincidence, the argument comes of very similar to the Molotov Man debate I was planning on investigating today, anyway.

In 2003, artist Joy Garnett did a series of paintings to capture her feelings about the Gulf War. One of those paintings was a piece of a larger photograph taken by photojournalist, Susan Meiselas, about human rights issues and political storms in Latin America. These paintings were representations of pieces of photographs Garnett had found on the Internet. She was invited to showcase this series in 2004, and she and the art director decided to have the opening and main piece be "Molotov Man," the painting that borrowed from Meiselas' photo. While I suggest you read the whole article and the follow up to it, the crux of the debate was that Meiselas' wanted credit for the original image and had threatened to sue for copyright infringement. The suit never went through, but Garnett did end up ensuring that credit was given whenever she used or promoted the image - but she would not take responsibility for other artists who she allowed to appropriate and reinterpret her version. Garnett argues that artists have the right to reinterpret and reinvent to promote cultural growth (much as my friend, Dan, stated in his guest post.) Meiselas states that Garnett's use of the image decontextualizes it and undermines what she is trying to do in documenting the historical event.

Fast forward to February and the Hegemann/Airen plagiarism and controversy. In this article from Speigel Online, the blogger and writer, Airen, is not quoted in asking for money or anything; he states that he wrote from personal experience, documenting the actual use and destruction of drugs… Hegemann is decontextualizing the actual experience in her using his words… cheapening the experience. While newer editions of Axolotl Roadkill do now credit Airen in the acknowledgements, it's interesting to see the similarities.

Turning the mirror back over, when I originally mentioned my first plagiarism blog post to my artist friends and explained how Hegemann used the piece of Airen's Strobo, they didn't see how it was such a big deal of plagiarism. My friend and colleague, Renée, who has been a photographer with me on several assignments and for similar publications, said, "I honestly don't feel Joy was committing copyright infrigment with her paintings […] I would not as a photographer be offended by Joy's work of art." She also points out that Meiselas saw the image used all over the place besides the painting - and not related to the painting - yet she did not sue or try to collect licensing fees from all the other imitators.

Another friend and colleague, Stef, who has her visual art displayed in the new store Renée and her fiancé, Sean, have opened, and has worked with museum art and stores for years, gave an even more in-depth analysis of the Molotov Man debate with her husband, Dave (who you may have seen responding to various Facebook posts of this blog).

First, they look at the guidelines and laws for publishing photos. What Meiselas is doing is protected under First Amendment rights for photos without consent. (Meiselas states she didn't even know the photo/painting subject's name until 11 years after she took the picture, and it was part of a series of people amidst public events.) In light of that, Stef and Dave make the following points (quoted directly from email):

* All the reproductions of the photograph we see when reading Susan’s argument more closely resemble her original photograph than does Joy’s painting.

* Susan’s contention that she felt she had to speak out against (and now she uses his name) “Pablo Arauz’s context being stripped away…” fails to take note of the simple fact that, had she kept silent on the matter, Joy’s painting would have remained an anonymous “Molotov Man.”

* Pablo was not even the subject of a photo journal. He happened to be in the center of one of Susan’s photographs while she documented the struggle in Nicaragua. Had she followed him as a focus of her photo series, and had Joy then knowingly used such photos as the basis for her paintings, then not only would Susan have grounds for a lawsuit, but so would Pablo.

* Susan documented a moment in history, a news story. “This is what happened.” Joy’s exhibition is about extremes in emotion. “How does this make you feel?”

In looking at those points, let's look at Hegemann's use of a piece of Airen's novel. The two are communicating different points in different styles. Airen is documenting actual events with the purpose of teaching people from the experience; Hegemann is exploring and searching for ways to rebel in a world where there is nothing original and everything is borrowed from something else. In fact, the very piece she lifted is self-referential in its usage.. down to the character stating his words were taken from a blogger. (Airen is a blogger.)

If writing is an arm in the branch of the Tree of Art (like music, sculpture, painting, etc.), what is the difference between the Molotov Man debate and the Hegemann "scandal"? While Garnett does now credit Meisalas when she uses her version of Molotov Man, and while current and future editions of Axolotl Roadkill credit Airen, there is no money exchanged. Are things all soothed out now? Or do writers still hold Hegemann in contempt? What about artists?

Many, many artists rose to defend and champion Garnett during the suit. On the other hand, you'll find most writers rose to condemn and insult Hegemann. What creates these different mindsets of copyright and creation?


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