Spreading fear and mayhem in the visual arts.

The Sunday Roast Rant

Posted in Cryptozoology, Curiosa & Forteana, Retrofuture, Sculpture, Taxidermy & Grotesk by Suzanne on August 3rd, 2008 | BBC Wikipedia

A few days ago, I posted about Alex's recently finished project finding it difficult to hold back my pride to see his skills evolve day by day and today, I find it difficult to hold back my disappointment in finding out that he's been ripped off for the 5th time this year.

Ryan Sawyer - a.k.a. "absinthetic" in LiveJournalLand - has gained a lot of undeserved attention and rather shortsighted praise in the blogosphère in the past two days by creating what he calls a Wonderland Expedition Kit.

He says:

"My lovely girlfriend's birthday is on Sunday, and since she's so fantastic, I wanted to make her something very special. She's a big fan of Alice in Wonderland, and we were awe-struck by the incredibly well-crafted and detailed creations of AlexCF, so I combined the two."

So yes, it's there: He admitted his source of "inspiration" black on white. But is that enough? Is copying someone's work simply a peccadillo once credit is given, compliments made here and there and a neat hyperlink added in a sub-clause?

A BoingBoing reader seems to think so:

"[...] AlexCF's kits are fabulous, very imaginative...but what impressed me about your kit was the thought, the time and the effort you put into [...]. Inspiration is one thing; follow-through is something else. [...]"

I don't think so. "Follow-through" just proves one thing alone: Imperturbable determination to keep copying until the copy reaches that thin demarcation line between originality and blueprinting (or "Abklatsch" as the person who once reactivated my brain - the good old Prof. Dr. Gottfried Boehm - used to call it referring to hand prints in cave art).

While determination may be a great trait for an athlete, in the arts it tends to drown out this faint little voice inside of us and overshadows the translucent subconscious authority that enables self-criticism and the ability to differentiate between creating and imitating, contributing and stealing. The authority that stimulates all cultural evolution and progress.

I've long come to the realisation that the majority of humanity will forever prefer the copied, convenient and painless to the original, challenging and unsettling. And I'm not being a kulturpessimist. I just observe and learn.

"[...] you should make a duplicate and sell it [...]"

See what I mean?

I'm very aware of the fact that assemblage art, just like collage art, is a highly tricky medium and a grey area when it comes to copyrights and ownership laws - after all, we will probably never find the guy who invented the box per se or the first individual in mankind's history who put an object into a box for purely decorative reasons. But that's not the point. The point is that even though it's already a great achievement to actually find someone who mentions his Muse by his name, it doesn't justify or authorise imitating. That's just not what rememberable art is made of.

Let's put ourselves into Mr Sawyer's mind for a second right at the moment when he decided upon the contents of his Wonderland Expedition Kit. And let's be honest - would...

i) you really think to include a set of bloody Cheshire Cat teeth or would you only consider it after seeing Alex's Werewolf Anatomical Research Case III?

Left: Detail of Alex CF's Werewolf Anatomical Research Case III | Right: Detail of Ryan Sawyer's Wonderland Expedition Kit - Please click to see details

ii) it really be that obvious that the same Prof. Lake from the same Miskatonic University that appeared in Lovecraft's stories and on the outside of Alex's Shub Niggurath Specimen would lead an expedition to Wonderland?! Errmmm... think again.

Left: Detail of Alex CF's Shub Niggurath Specimen | Right: Detail of Ryan Sawyer's Wonderland Expedition Kit - Please click to see details

I don't care whether you think I'm being pedantic or trying to protect the person I love. The fact of the matter is that I'm sick and tired of seeing some of my best and most visionary friends' oeuvre being ripped off - foremost Trevor Brown's - and trust me, it infuriates me just as much when I see one of his works being copied.

But I'm not an art or copyright lawyer, all I can do to channel my anger is trying to document cases of imitation and plagiarism. It won't make the world a better place, it won't prevent art from being copied because there will always be an abundance of a) bored, b) jealous, c) competitive copycats out there who have no shame to climb into the filthy downward spiral of degenerative mediocrity. However, building a little Wall of Shame has always been a rather satisfactory activity.

Creating art should always be an inventive process, it's work, it's pain, it's sweat, it's being frustrated, breaking down in tears, banging one's head against a wall, it means being too hard on oneself, it means throwing things around the room and starting all over again, but never giving up creating and inventing. It this chaotic, destructive and cathartic process which provides artworks with a soul, a heart, an indestructible Walter Benjaminesque aura that defies space and time and that only an original can ever have.

And as hard as I try, I'm sorry to say that I simply cannot see an aura, or any blood, sweat & tears in your Wonderland Expedition Kit, Ryan.

Maybe, at the end of the day when those cynic smiles are etched into our faces, we can maybe even find the loudest laugh, some consequent truth, the ultima ratio of the liberated villain in this MetaFilter comment:

"I, for one, plan to shamelessly copy this idea!"

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18 comments to " The Sunday Roast Rant "

  1. Gravatar

    peacay says:

    When you are close to a person, it is nigh on impossible to have proper objectivity.

    I'm not sure I see how absinthetic profits here (apart from web cred/kudos) [maybe I'm wrong?]

    As you observe, absinthetic fully acknowledges the inspiration (and I note that they have now added another paragraph at the beginning of their post to make sure everyone sees the citing of Alex)

    There's a strong line of inspiration that reaches back through the centuries, as I know both you and Alex know, through the scientific museums, medical specimen collections and the wunderkammer. Combining that legacy with a cryptozoological theme and a steampunkish look is, on the face of it, original artwork with varied inspirational origins, isn't it?

    I'm absolutely not trying to say what you've written is wrong or even that I disagree. I actually don't know where I stand on this, or at least, I haven't formed a strong opinion. I guess I'm just trying to say that I can see another perspective here.

    You're right that art requires energy and inventiveness and I think a jury would probably find that absinthetic has actually demonstrated that, just.

    An alternative question might be this: has or will the exposure that's come about for Alex as a direct result of absinthetic's recent (and lucky) high profile on the web be a good thing or a not so good thing? If absinthetic isn't going to sell the thing and they are crediting Alex and the thing absinthetic produced is for his gf, then isn't there some indirect benefit for Alex that would not have been there if this web spike hadn't happened?? (I note both you and Alex mention of copying occurring a number of times this year and I sympathise but I don't know about those instances)

    Again: I'm not saying I disagree with you (goD knows I would resist doing that with a one such as thee ;- ) but I'm not fully convinced that a very bad thing has happened.
    And I bet you know better than me about artists doing 'vaguely' similar cryposteamcollection nat. sci. kind of specimen sets don't ya? I mean, not taking away from Alex's great work (which I admire and of course discovered through your good self), but it's still a genre that's peopled by a number of artists no? It's not being painted as ORIGINAL in the same way you might call Picasso original is it?

    I dunno, maybe this could be a prompt to devise some 'interesting' marketing ideas on the web, to get the word out about Alex?? To add my own 2c worth, I'll now go and add Alex's site to my delish links which gets scraped into the sidebar at Bib. And to give a perverse element of payback or whatever, Bib has just been posted to BBoing, so if there's a traffic spike at all, then the BB-cattle will have been fed back to the point of origin in all of these shenanigans, as it were.

    August 3rd, 2008 at 6:03 pm

  2. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    i guess at the end of the day this a matter of principle, and also, to quote many a head teacher - to make an example of someone, so as to remind artists that the whole point of art is to create something that you can be proud of, that you can truly say is your own, and that the influences are not obvious, even to you. Now i am fully aware that i take influence from many things, be that wunderkammer or eldritch horror, but its how you execute something, and i have searched long and hard to ensure (and trust me, im so anally retentive, i have to know im not walking on any well worn paths) that i am the only person who is doing what im doing, although im sure, with anything, a bit of one artists work, and a bit of another and you assemble something that resembles what im doing. This whole situation was bad timing - we're both tired due to two day street party outside our house - and this being the fifth time this has happened, id had it up to here with defending my work. hence mine and susies frustration.
    Regardless i hope that this situation has not put anyone off enjoying my work.

    August 3rd, 2008 at 11:19 pm

  3. Gravatar

    Vanwall says:

    I thought about Alex's work immediately upon viewing the post on boing-boing - there's been a few others I've seen online, but this one had some bits & pieces that struck a chord; I didn't realize how the little things like teeth stuck in my head from before. I see they're at least putting Alex's work out as superior enough to act as inspiration, especially on the edited page, but this kind of close copying is somewhat invidious on its face - it was bound to be troubling for Alex, and perhaps they should've thought about how close they would hew to the shore before embarking on this course. I'm very much aware that when the false Dharma appears, it eventually subsumes the true Dharma, so your criticism is more than valid - regardless of how others view this latest business, it is certainly not just an homage. You would do well to let the one-offs like this lie, as long as they are sleepers, but don't feel you shouldn't shout out if it looks like becoming some sort of derivative industry - bad art is hell to kill when it gets near a wallet. I would at least comment on boing-boing if I were you, not high-falutin' and all, and certainly not vitriolic, just enough to let the public know your mixed feelings; it certainly would gain wider dissemination on the Net. Just my thoughts.

    August 4th, 2008 at 7:53 am

  4. Gravatar

    Justin says:

    I've made a living from my art, and I've had people sell imitations of my work, and it makes me angry to read opinions like this. Alex's wonderful work is not more original or deserving of a higher pedestal or of more protection than the work of those inspired by his work - and this is not the terrible thing you make it out to be. There are works so similar to Alex's - that predate his work - that if shown side by side, people would be convinced they were from the same artist. Yet they are from different artists who merely share similar inspirations. Nothing is original.

    The Wonderland creation is an example how the arts and crafts world should work. Not an example of how it shouldn't.
    Further, if someone else were to come along and, greatly inspired by Alex's work, make something that is very similar, but pulls out the stops and manages to do it better, the world is better off for that.

    Alex's work can hold its own. (And if you think it can't, then the onus is on the artist to raise his game, not for others to cut him some slack)

    August 4th, 2008 at 9:33 am

  5. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    if you can truly stand there and not exhibit any frustration when seeing imitations of your work being sold then you are a better man than me, but i cannot for the life of me believe that if your work was your livelihood that you would not be moved to take some form of action to prevent this from happening,

    if you want to constructively add to the discussion i would like to see your work and these imitations so this can be constructive - if art is your life and your rent cheque - imitation and copycat artists threaten that and therefor this post and my opinion is valid.
    I would also like to see a SINGLE artists work that looks identical to mine, other than these copies - i'm not being arrogant at all, i would just like to see the proof which has been suggested by some of these copycats in the past but never backed up with evidence - i do take influence from wunderkammer cases, but these are always scientific and taxidermy - i create fantasy pieces and i hope that my work is indeed original, if not, i am adding nothing to the world.

    and as a self employed artist for 8 years, i can safely say i am holding my own.

    August 4th, 2008 at 10:06 am

  6. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    id like to add that since this whole issue occurred, i have been in contact with the person who made this piece and we have come to an understanding. i was very happy to finally meet someone who was happy to discuss this situation.
    I am not threatened by the art, i am threatened by the trend, and indeed one of the main points of this blog, and suzannes personal opinion - is to help support and maintain up and coming artists, and therefor this whole discussion is valid.

    August 4th, 2008 at 10:35 am

  7. Gravatar

    trevor brown says:

    "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" - or so they say - it gets dirty when the original artist is not credited - and, as is so often the case for me, especially shitty when the plagiarists are making 100 times more than you out of copies of your work

    anyway, i think this attention can only bode well for alex as people can see his work is superior ...but where did alex steal the idea from! : )

    August 4th, 2008 at 11:15 am

  8. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    i can honestly say i didn't steal the idea - but of course i will say that! even if i wasnt telling the truth - originally it was to take a different direction and be a written project as opposed to a physical one, but i enjoyed creating the first project (the story behind it as much as the piece itself) and decided to keep at it.
    Since this became my career, of course i have discovered a few incredibly talented case artists (ron Pippin being an obvious one) who far out do me in scale and subject matter, but their work - and direction - is entirely different from mine, and thats cool. i try very hard, as do all artists - to not tread on other people toes.
    Im sorry if anyone felt that suzanne and i were wrong in broaching this subject. but we are also entitled to raise our voices. As suzanne said - we never want to become silenced and conservative in our old age. Its important to be passionate and care about these things rather than become apathetic.
    most of what has been written in these comments, suzanne already discussed in the above topic. and as i said before, the case (no pun intended) is closed.

    August 4th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  9. Gravatar

    peacay says:

    I can't believe how much time I've spent off and on today (err...210am now, gah.... so, yesterday!) thinking about this whole kerfuffle.

    I'm not sure I'm equipped (either with the I.P. legal knowledge or in terms of having all the relevant facts, which would at least partly involve seeing the works in real life methinks) to have formed a concrete opinion. So I remain an interested, but sympathetic, observer.

    I am not threatened by the art, i am threatened by the trend

    Mm. I understand that. Still, it's tricky. It's almost like a private homage for the dude's gf crosses some ethereal, moral and perhaps IP boundary by being displayed on the web. The trouble of course is that copying, even if not-for-profit, tends to have the effect of devaluing the originality because it's reasonable to assume that the web community, in seeing a tweaked copy, believe that there is more of this sort of thing around and that the originator is unable or unwilling to establish boundaries for that part of the work over which originality is claimed. It's a bit like patents as with the scrabulous/scrabble blowup in recent days with Facebook. Either one asserts ownership / IP or one kind of loses "rights" to effect redress in the future.

    See, I'm not sure which 'bits' in your work would, in law, be ajudged singularly original. I'm not challenging you Alex, by saying that, rather, I'm edging towards an appraisal in terms of IP. This whole thing is tricky and I guess I slightly trend towards thinking that you would be on 'difficult' ground attempting to establish copyright, say, over the entire project, or parts thereof. Or, maybe you could swing the whole project as copyrightable, but that parody or emulation of jars or creatures or component writing...that sort of thing...would fall outside of copyright. I am absolutely no expert at all; I'm just trying to look at this objectively/logically.

    And so it seems to me that the best you can hope for, save for obtaining a proper legal opinion from an IP lawyer (which I guess might be possible on the web?), is to continue with the present tactics, viz: identify copying, challenge or at least contact the artist and attempt to get them to remove it from pubic display (unlikely I'm sure) or urge them to give you prominent attribution. You need to have a swag of guerilla commenters to help promulgate this sort of thing. Seriously.

    Yarrrr... did I say that I think this whole thing is tricky? Warhol is standing at the bottom of this slippery slope of a conundrum. He is laughing.

    August 4th, 2008 at 5:14 pm

  10. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    IP is almost impossible with assemblage art - i would have to have patents over any antique items i use - i guess in some regards i could seek a blanketing IP for the entire point of my art - fantastical stories, aparatus and creatures given life in the form scientific studies, evidence and specimens, and a mysterious man who travels the world collecting these curiosities for his own hidden reasons - but it is easy to say that -this in its own right could be picked apart, so as you have said, all i can do is defend myself and hope that this will blow over.

    August 4th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

  11. Gravatar

    alexcf says:

    im going to ask susie to remove this post as i have settled my differences with the gentleman in question. perhaps the conversation can be continued in the forums if need be.

    August 4th, 2008 at 5:34 pm

  12. Gravatar

    Thomas says:

    I hope that Suzanne will not remove this thread or any posts. It contains a lot of thoughtful and for the most part respectful discussion on the subject of inspiration and imitation in art. This colloquy is worth preserving.

    The rule in intellectual property law is that copyright protects the expression of an idea but not the idea itself. The question of where "imitation" departs from "influence" is a subjective one. There is a lot of room between inspiration and infringement in which the creator's reputation will thrive or suffer depending on the subjective impression of the public.

    I'm glad that there is also room for this discussion to take place in that space.

    August 8th, 2008 at 7:48 pm

  13. Gravatar

    Tom says:

    "that you can truly say is your own, and that the influences are not obvious, even to you."

    This makes no sense. A) No once creates things without the influence of the world around them in some form and B) without werewolf/vampire stories, and authors like Lovecraft who's the real genius here, how would these ideas have even come to be? They wouldn't.

    August 18th, 2009 at 3:39 am

  14. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    You've actually written it there, Tom. It's the "form" mentioned in paragraph A) that matters. If that "form" is pure plagiarism it's just offensive, uncreative and a bloody waste of time and material. If the "form" is a homage, it's of course a completely different story. Now look at the images posted in my blog and I think you will understand that what absinthetic did is clearly plagiarism. He then very cleverly turned it into a written homage by adding his thanks to Alex, links and an explanatory text when he realised that the story of him ripping off Alex CF made the internet rounds.

    August 31st, 2009 at 11:36 am

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