Wednesday 7 February 2007


When I wrote about Lichtenstein on Sunday I didn’t stop to think what a can of worms that subject is, silly me, and got the longest and most comments on a post so far, even allowing for me deleting two of my own responses to comments (after choosing words with impeccable care in a presentation piece, it’s always a sad spectacle to see a writer blundering around like a beached walrus among the pursuant snipes). In my article I carefully avoided expressing an opinion on the matter, confining myself to observing the foolishness of other parties. Since so many others have screamed PLAGIARISM! In the Lichtenstein matter I feel I now have to stick my foot in.

My school art teachers were probably of a very academic disposition. I wasn't aware enough of the big picture at the time to have a real insight into that. When I found myself at another school later my teacher there worked in an abstract mode but his theory was that painting would come back to figuration. He was a bit stuffy about the the areas where my head resided. By this time I had enthusiastically taught myself a great deal about the history of the subject, working through the phases of modernism, and when I finally arrived at Pop Art, which was making it into the commonplace handbook histories of art by the late sixties (after being celebrated in the colour magazines, which as a kid I hadn’t taken much notice of.)

So, seeing Lichtenstein’s huge ‘Whaam!’ at the Tate in 1970 (I’d only just arrived in London), seven years after it was painted, was a real revelation to me (I'd seen it in books of course, but this was the defining moment). Here we were back at figuration but it was a kick in the pants to my stuffy art teacher, and it kicked over the dividing screen between high art and low art, for in my head it didn't exist (which I guess just means I was paying attention to the zeitgeist unconsciously) and I had been looking for confirmation out there in the world at large. After that moment I had proof of my conviction that such a division was bogus.
Lichtenstein largely abandoned the lifting of comic book panels by about ’66, and his Mural with Blue Brushstroke, found hanging in the lobby of the AXA Center, New York City, painted in 1986, is a masterpiece, unless you’re one of those flat earth types I sometimes refer to here, in which case you will deny it. Our culture decrees that every clot is entitled to their opinion, and so you may do so.

But let’s stick to the issue; the lifted panels. It was necessary that they be as near as possible to the original for the point to work. Lichtenstein was putting a whole style on the wall, and it had to be impersonal and recognizable, with adjustments made not for style, but for succintness and clarity. Inevitably in this age of democratic culture, and Pop Art contributed to the dialogue that brought the change, the originators of the lifted images would have to get their due credit (they cannot be owed cash, since they owned no rights in the images), and that is now part of the story. And so it should be. However a lot of the argument that you'll find on Wikipedia looks cockeyed to me. The art world argues that Lichtenstein altered the compositions, which is irrelevant; my pal Gibbons is in there, defending the quality of the original comic books, which can only be a personal opinion; I challenge you to read the damn things all the way through. Everyone to his opinion regarding quality, but is it worth arguing about a quoted panel? Somebody says: “Some (of the comic book artists) threatened to sue him…” Wha? Where did that come from? Sue for what? The artists never owned the work, so they couldn’t be suing for damages. What for then? The theft of a ‘style’? Is there a legal precedent for that? Can any of these pictures be said to be appropriating a personal style anyway? They all look generic. And they are interesting for that very reason.

And that is the problem with art today: the artist believes he must find a style (or a schtick really) and defend it with his life. And if all the schticks are already taken, he must pull one out of his ass. He must find one, invent one, fabricate one, for he can be nothing if he cannot be original. It’s what I once saw termed ‘the neurosis of innovation’.

It’s time to turn to my favourite philosopher, R G Collingwood, once called ‘one of the (twentieth) century's best-known "neglected" thinkers.’ ‘He portrayed art as a necessary function of the human mind, and considered it collaborative, i.e., a collective and social activity.' I used a long and wonderful quote from his Speculum Mentis, or the map of Knowledge (1924) in my How to be an Artist, and I consider that quotation to be at the very heart of what my book is about. Collingwood wrote this other one in The Principles of Art (1938) and I obtained it via David A Pierce who transcribed it on his own site. Take it with a pinch of salt, pepper or whatever condiment you have to hand.

"To begin by developing a general point already made in the preceding chapter: we must get rid of the conception of artistic ownership. We try to secure a livelihood for our artists (and God knows they need it) by copyright laws protecting them against plagiarism; but the reason why our artists are in such a poor way is because of that very individualism which these laws enforce. If an artist may say nothing except what he has invented by his own sole efforts, it stands to reason he will be poor in ideas. If he could take what he wants wherever he could find it, as Euripides and Dante and Michelangelo and Shakespeare and Bach were free, his larder would always be full, and his cookery might be worth tasting.

This is a simple matter, and one in which artists can act for themselves without asking help (which I am afraid they would ask in vain) from lawyers and legislators. Let every artist make a vow, and here among artists I include all such as write or speak on scientific or learned subjects, never to prosecute or lend himself to a prosecution under the law of copyright. Let any artist who appeals to that law be cut by his friends, asked to resign from his clubs, and cold-shouldered by any society in which right-thinking artists have influence. It would not be many years before the law was a dead letter, and the strangle-hold of artistic individualism in this one respect a thing of the past.

This, however, will not be enough unless the freedom so won is used. Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it; not a sketch in Punch, but a full-sized picture for next year's Academy. I will not rely upon the hanging committee's sense of humour to the extent of guaranteeing that they would exhibit it; but if they did, we should get brighter Academy exhibitions. Or if he cannot improve on his friends' ideas, at least let him borrow them; it will do him good to try fitting them into works of his own, and it will be an advertisement for the creditor. An absurd suggestion? Well, I am only proposing that modern artists should treat each other as Greek dramatists or Renaissance painters or Elizabethan poets did. If any one thinks that the law of copyright has fostered better art than those barbarous times could produce, I will not try to convert them."

* * * *

Cartoonist in court over drink-flying charges. (nobody from this parish). (I edited to add that in so i can say I beat Tom Spurgeon to it.)

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Blogger Kelly Kilmer said...

Amen, Amen, Amen...THANK YOU for this post.

THANK YOU. I'm going to steal it now and put it on MY blog.

Mwahhaaa (evil laugh).

7 February 2007 at 00:38:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Are those amens for the number of times i put it up and took it down again. i think the links all work now.

glad you liked it
i guess somebody had to say it.
Collingwood is something though!

7 February 2007 at 00:41:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Kelly Kilmer said...

He's left out Corporations though...the artists don't benefit it's the corporations that do!

I didn't like it, I loved it! Stole it and put it on my blog! Thanks!

7 February 2007 at 00:51:00 GMT-5  
Blogger spacedlaw said...

That’s great.
I’ve gone through law studies, specializing in Intellectual Property Rights even, but I find that Collingwood’s comment is spot on. There is very little absolute novelty floating around and – since we do not live in splendid isolation - we all have people that we admire, people that will inspire us - whether we try to avoid this or not, actually. People or creations that will spark an idea in the mind of others. And it’s brilliant: There would be no art without this cross fertilisation.
Better still, this happy and healthy exchange would (should ?) spark desires to go out and create your own visions, express you own feelings in whatever medium has your preference. And while people are pursuing happily the muses, they are not likely to go around bashing their neighbours’ skull. A good case of “Make Art not War”.

7 February 2007 at 03:05:00 GMT-5  
Blogger miriam beetle said...

the "intellectual property" ethos spreading to visual art is a very bad thing.

the study of art has been copying art, from at least as far back as the romans (half the "greek" statues in museums are roman copies), and much of great art, including modernism & definitely postmodernism, engages with the history of art through "quotes" & references.

it can feel icky if "appropriating" means devaluing the art of the ones you are stealing from, but the cult of impregnable originality is much ickier, also a dead end.

7 February 2007 at 04:12:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Dave Gibbons said...

Pal Campbell, I made no comment about the overall quality of the original comics, especially as literature.

However, I stand by my comment: "Roy Lichtenstein’s copies of the work of Irv Novick and Russ Heath are flat, uncomprehending tracings of quite sophisticated images"

As you say, everyone to his own!

7 February 2007 at 04:46:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Feroze said...

Irv Novick is quoted in Mike Richardson's "Comics between the panels" relating a story about Lictenstein in the army. He finds Roy crying like a baby on his bunk,upset with his menial duties.
Irv "felt sorry for the kid". Novick pulled some strings and got him a better job. Novick says"later on one of the first things he started copying was my work. He didn't come into his own,doing things that were worthwhile,until he started doing things less academic then that. He was just making large copies of the cartoons I had drawn and painted them"
Bob Kanigher is quoted as saying"I was at Novick's studio once,when he was drawing one of my Johnny Cloud scripts.The scene was of an aerial dogfight. Irv held the model in his hand tirning and twisting it like a fighter pilot, describing the fight with his swooping hands. With his free hand Irv drew the scene while conversing with me without dropping a syllable. Talk about Merlins. Irv's a magician.
Irv and I later saw a famous pop artist's painting reproduced in the NYtimes. It was a duplicate of a Johnny Cloud panel, a dogfighting plane with sound effects. That artist got thousands for that oil.He should have split it with Irv"

7 February 2007 at 04:46:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Feel as though i'm being trapped here.... must say something facetious...

If he's contemptuous of comics, i'd love to have a beer with him


Dave Gibbons.!!!
I had a computer disaster and lost my entire address book. I'm trying to get your email add via a mutual pal (i've got a new one myself, so delete whatever you have)


7 February 2007 at 05:47:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Bat Masterson said...

Have you seen Jonathan Lethem's article in Harper's, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism"? It's much along these lines...

7 February 2007 at 06:34:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...


thanks. THAT is the most beautiful thing i've read in a long time. I'll comment on my blog further tomorrow.

I'm not too familiar with Erro, alas, . i did a quick google, but what i was seeing was quite different from what you had led me to expect. I'm trying to avoid being a person who has opinions except of a positive sort.
I'll look some more. Interesting work


7 February 2007 at 08:01:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Neil Gaiman said...

Richard Posner (a remarkable judge and legal mind, oddly enough the appeal's court judge who ruled for me in the McFarlane case) just did a book about this, from a writer's point of view, saying the same thing as you Eddie, more or less: There's a review at,0,5130367.htmlstory?coll=cl-bookreview

7 February 2007 at 10:04:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

I'm afraid most of this trouble is because of the intersection between art and money.

When something's at stake (either status, in the case of my poetry chums, or hard cash), the knives start to come out.

7 February 2007 at 10:15:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Aaron F. Gonzalez said...

"his Mural with Blue Brushstroke, found hanging in the lobby of the AXA Center, New York City, painted in 1986, is a masterpiece, unless you’re one of those flat earth types I sometimes refer to here, in which case you will deny it. "

I'm someone who doesn't get it. I won't argue against it being great or whatever, I just obviously am missing something with it.

I would love someone to explain what makes it great to me. OR what the intentions were with it.

I'm not being a jerk off or anything. I would just like to be educated a bit on it.

7 February 2007 at 11:52:00 GMT-5  
Blogger tiffini elektra x said...

I so agree with you on this issue. Thanks Sonny B - great thing you did before you ran into that tree. And now with Disney trying to trademark other peoples creations. Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and Peter Pan, Pinocchio - none of which they created. They interpreted the characters - protect that fair enough - but now they want exclusive rights to use all those characters? There have been at least 14 English-language films based on Collodi's 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio (which itself drew on other sources), and many more in other languages. One would hope that Disney is not allowed to lay claim to stories that are out of copyright (the sole reason why even Disney itself was able to make movies of them) merely because it adapted them.
My favorite is when an artist nowadays claims to have invented an art form. Really?
Obviously, nobody likes to be out and out copied. It is nice when people bring their own style and subject matter to their art. While on the subject it also drives me batty when some collage artists go on about copyright! If it was not for the public domain most of us would have no source material!? Which is awesome I for one never want to be like Disney and steal other peoples ideas fiddle with them a bit and slap my own copyright on it. I feel that the public domain is so important - for people to make art and continue building upon great ideas. You gotta just not worry about it keep coming up with new ideas and hope that adding your aesthetic keeps things rolling.
Anywho. . .great post(s).

7 February 2007 at 12:46:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

that's a very attractive blog you have there.


7 February 2007 at 15:55:00 GMT-5  
Blogger James Robert Smith said...

Plagiarism in art seems to be a nebulous concept. Especially in fantasy art and in comic art.

What Lichtenstein did was not plagiarism in any sense, as far as I can see (my opinion, as you state). His comic panels were merely a reinterpretation of specific works from a medium most at the time didn't even consider to be art at all.

It was a pretty bright move, if nothing else, even the most conservative have to admit. The best modern art is subversive, and the Lichtenstein panels in question were certainly subversive.

Which brings me to a certain insane comic book artist I used to know who began making his living plagiarising Frazetta. I've seen "originals" by this guy that are nothing more than blatant copies of Frazetta works with some minor changes. Why this is considered acceptable, I've never been able to figure. Apparently there is a different attitude at work in the world of graphic art than in literature.

7 February 2007 at 17:23:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Johnny Walker said...

Brilliant quote, I love it! Unfortunately it requires all artists to agree to this rule for it to work in this day and age, which makes it a bit idealistic, but I'd LOVE to see it happen.

It's amazing because, for a while, the internet and computers allowed people to do such things. One of my favourite websites (and I know it's not "high art" or anything) used to be a site called "", which hosted people's reinterpretations and alternative cover art for their favourite films. It wasn't perfect, but it was great fun being able to rework a movie's artwork and share it with people. Some of the designs were way better than the ones you could buy in the shops.

Alas, Disney sued the pants off of the poor student who owned the site, and it has long since gone. But for a while, being able to tear apart other people's work and do what you like with it, was tremendously liberating.

Copyright and art doesn't mix :(

7 February 2007 at 20:52:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trying to define plagiarism is like trying to nail the proverbial jelly to the wall. I usually define it as large scale theft without alteration being passed off as unique work. Beyond that we're into the misty realms of collage, sampling and general artistic influence which is a whole other matter.

A couple of points:

1) Art critic Robert Hughes (yes, him again) insists that "newness isn't a value". In other words, giving special dispensation to a work simply because it appears new or sui generis is a mistake. (This is despite writing a book called The Shock of the New.) You'd have to read his argument in his words but I think he's saying we're beyond the point where originality (as much as that can be quantified) confers anything special on an artwork, book, comic, etc. Brian Eno has a recipe for originality: simply do something that's so time-consuming or difficult that no-one else would bother. Which leads to the second point.

2) Eno is great to read on art matters, he often has a fresh perspective. Something he's said repeatedly over the past few years concerns influence and the question of originality.

Since we're now Post-Original, the task of the artist or writer (Eno says) is to be a "curator of influence". In other words, your influences might be W Pett Ridge, Thunderbirds, Get Carter and the Epic of Gilgamesh; if you mash those together in different quantities you're going to have something unique that represents you, even though the individual elements have a prior existence. Your influences differ from the next person; even if they didn't you might take completely different things from them. In the review Neil refers to above there's mention of The Waste Land which is a good example of a sampled or collaged poem. It's also a great example of Eliot curating his influences in a very careful manner so that what emerges is unique. Another poet borrowing from Shakespeare, Dante, Baudelaire, The Golden Bough, etc would produce something completely different. Oh, and if you want another flush of irony, look no further than the severe strictures Faber places on anyone daring to quote Eliot's work.

So what's plagiarism then? Thieving without admitting it? Is it a question of degree, the more you steal from a single source, the worse it gets from a moral standpoint? Slippery stuff this, especially when we've had Kathy Acker making a whole career of stealing from other writers. But then she did so openly and she was less a plagiarist than a writer riffing off Dickens and co., like an improvising musician would with a well-known song.

Final point: Bollocks to Disney. :)

7 February 2007 at 22:00:00 GMT-5  
Blogger drjon said...

Good artists copy. Great artists steal.

We're all feeding each other, eating each other, creatively speaking. The only real sense I can make of plagiarism (outside of academia) is in the sense of one artist using the work of another artist without "filing the serial numbers off", when that other artist still controls the legal right of copy over it (still alive etc). Which is to say, it's a tort issue, not a creative one.

Oh yeah, and bollocks to Disney, the thieving bastards. ;})>

8 February 2007 at 02:55:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Stanley Lieber said...

Bravo, Eddie!

10 February 2007 at 01:24:00 GMT-5  

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