Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bob Dylan, Art Thief?

Since when is it considered plagiarism to make a drawing or painting of a photograph?

Bob Dylan came under fire this week when it was revealed that several of his paintings on display at the Gagosian Gallery in New York were based on photographs, many retrieved from Flickr, and at least one of which copies the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Other than Dylan's dubious claim that "I paint from real life," and that the paintings are a "visual journal" of his travels, my reaction is, so what?

Drawing from photographs is a fairly standard practice among high-school art students, as well as for artists without access to live models. Dylan is neither, but if creating a painting from a photograph is theft, then it could be argued that a photographer is a thief whenever he aims his camera at any subject other than himself.

If he photographs a bridge and doesn't acknowledge those who built it, well, he's a plagiarist, is he not?

If he photographs a building and does not acknowledge the architect, as well as receive his permission to duplicate his work on film, he's stealing the architect's work, right?

If that's the case, a photojournalist who captures a crowd scene on film needs the permission of every individual in the photo, all of whom have the right to decide if that photo can be published. They are also entitled to financial compensation if the photographer is paid for that published work. It's even been said that the camera steals the soul of its subjects. If that doesn't entitle a photographer's subject to damages, well, there's something wrong with our legal system.

If Dylan is a plagiarist, he's in good company.

Did Andy Warhol request permission from the Campbell Soup Company before creating his legendary "soup can"? Did Campbell's share in any profit that Warhol made from selling his work or reproductions thereof?

What about the manufacturers of Brillo, whose box became another memorable Warhol piece? Somebody created the original design, although it's doubtful Brillo gave him credit or anything but a flat fee or paycheck.

How about Warhol's piece depicting an electric chair? Should he have acknowledged whoever built it and been required to pay a licensing fee?

And let's not overlook Warhol's silkscreens of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, two superstars whose images are worth millions and who did not agree to pose for him. Warhol depicted Elvis in a scene from the 1960 Twentieth Century Fox film, Flaming Star, and Monroe from the same company's 1957 film, The Seven Year Itch. Not only was Warhol stealing from Elvis and Marilyn, he was ripping off Twentieth Century Fox, as well as the photographers, film directors, and even the screenwriters who might be able to claim ownership of those images.

As for music, where's the name of Lennon and McCartney on David Bowie's 1975 song, "Young Americans," which quotes "I read the news today, oh boy" and its accompanying melody from the Beatles' "A Day in the Life"?

Joe DiMaggio earned a mention in Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson." Was DiMaggio consulted beforehand? Did he have the right to demand that the line in which his name appears be excised? For that matter, what about all of us who comprise the “nation” whose lonely eyes Simon said were turned to Joltin’ Joe? What right does Simon have to suggest my eyes are lonely or that they are turned to a baseball player?

Dylan has written songs about several famous public figures, including Billy the Kid, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, mobster Joey Gallo, and Hattie Carroll and her alleged killer, William Zantzinger. Do they or their descendants have the right to demand a share of the royalties as well as a credit on the songs that told their stories?

What about an artist who makes a collage using photos from various newspapers and magazines. Is he a plagiarist if he hasn't received permission from those publications?

The answer to all of the above questions is NO!

Dylan should have been more straight-forward about where he found his inspiration for those paintings, but they're still HIS paintings. Even if an old photograph was the catalyst, they are new creations. This controversy probably has less to do with giving credit where credit is due than it has to do with money, and the possibility of milking a millionaire in a plagiarism lawsuit.

Like the brouhaha over Dylan's concerts in China earlier this year, this is much ado about nothing. Oops, that's a quote from Shakespeare. "It's plagiarism, pure and simple," Rob Oechsle, the owner of that Flickr account told The Los Angeles Times regarding Dylan's use of photos posted online. "If a writer were to use a phrase from Shakespeare, and not credit him, or attribute it in any way," Oechsle said, "that's what they'd be accused of."

Well, not really, Mr. Oechsle, or "Okinawa Soba" as he calls himself. (That sounds a little like Kimosabi to me, and Mr. Oechsle does not acknowledge Tonto or the Lone Ranger on his Flickr page.) Many of Shakespeare's phrases are so common that it's possible to quote him without knowing it, just as I don't know the origin of the phrase I quoted earlier about the soul-stealing capabilities of a camera. I've heard it plenty of times, and never from anyone who cited its author. Some quotes are so famous that attribution isn't necessary. In jest, a film buff might quote Clark Gable's famous line from Gone With the Wind ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn") or the line many people believe Humphrey Bogart said to Dooley Wilson in Casablanca ("Play it again, Sam") without mentioning the films, simply because it's assumed everybody knows them. And naming the movie might not be enough for Mr. Oechsle. You'd also have to list the screenwriters and the author of the original book or play from which the screenplays were adapted, and maybe the director and film company, too. Of course, to do so would be utterly ridiculous, much like the controversy over Dylan's paintings.

If the Gagosian Gallery were presenting an exhibit of Dylan photos, and it turned out those photographs came from Flickr or the portfolio of Henri Cartier-Bresson, that would be a scandal worth examining. But paintings from photographs? If a picture is really worth a thousand words, it's also worth a painting or two, and when the painting is by an artist of Dylan's standing, the photographer should feel complimented.

(By the way, the accompanying photo is an ink drawing I made of Dylan 21 years ago from a photo I found in a book. I don't know who took the original photo. If anyone does, let me know and I'll give him credit, lest I piss off Okinawa Soba.)

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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