Is You Is or Is You Ain't my Artwork

I was trained as a fine artist, which necessitates using a malingering modifier–fine–for purely conventional purposes. This term retains its meaning, despite the fact that it seems like a Beaux-Arts anachronism, as tired as plaster casts of Greek statuary. Ideologically speaking, I dislike the term, and the view of culture it propounds. Especially inasmuch as it aligns itself with a vaguely progressive view of human affairs, according to which all persons move toward greater self-realization and just rewards for their labors. Yet such rewards, often taking the form of simple credit, routinely do not accrue to producers of meaner cultural works. I speak generally of the decorative, industrial and communication arts, but especially graphic works in popular circulation. I’ve opined on this before. The Robert O. Reid illustration below was a subject of such a discussion.

This state of affairs prevails because, according to habits of mind in high cultural precincts, such works are not made by individual people, but rather by “the culture.” Which legitimizes their theft sans attribution. Money is a different subject, into which I shall not wander.
Case in point: the drastically different fates of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic panel paintings, and the printed materials from which they were largely copied. The former have been subject to inflationary bloat for some time, while the latter have been systematically de-emphasized–effectively suppressed–by otherwise freedom-loving officialdom d’art.

The detective work performed by David Barsalou has shown the clear relationship between comic book panel designs by Irv Nowick, Jack Kirby, et. al on the one hand, and on the other, Lichtenstein’s large scale copies of them presented as his own. Sure, we can call this the cutting edge of appropriation circa 1962, but show me the justification for failing to credit the blatant and by now firmly established relationship between them.

Thankfully, Barsalou has been on the case for some time now. He’s tracked down hundreds of panels and matched them with Lichtenstein’s copies. His work has gotten a bump in attention in the last few weeks on comics blogs. Brian Childs provides a roundup at Comics Alliance, including a snippet from that–stunningly–describes a historical relationship between Irv Novick and Roy Lichtenstein.

Matt Duarte picks up the thread at Weekly Crisis, and provides an account of a visit to the Tate Modern, where Lichtenstein’s WHAAM–a copy of Novick’s original panel–hangs. I’ve posted Duarte’s photo of the painting in situ.

The New York Times provided another angle of vision on this discussion just last week. Judith H. Dobrzynsky’s article on the newly re-installed American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum explores a fascinating parallel. I am a fan of this museum, particularly its American Indian collections. (The departmental structure of museum itself presents a fascinating set of taxonomic questions, but that’s for another day.) The article focused on the curatorial work of Nancy Blomberg, who I interviewed several years ago on a research trip for a book I’m working on. Blomberg and her colleagues have re-contextualized works previously designated only by tribe with artist’s credits when possible, and Anonymous when not.

Dobrzynsky writes of the installation, “For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.”


I applaud the attribution, for exactly the reasons outlined above. An overdue adjustment, by any stretch. But the goal ought not be the fabulous power of Art. Our aim should be a fulsome multidimensional reflection on humans and what they produce. I am unenthusiastic about “elevating” items into “exalted realm of art.” For God's sake, people, lose the vertical axis! All things that people make are artifacts. The categorical exemption that works of art effectively enjoy from this reality is not to be extended or expanded, but shrunk!

A line-up of selected works on the Denver Art Museum website chosen to represent the collection raises a question or two. The annotations do not include dates, and the dread word "masterpiece" makes an appearance. Temporal reality still matters. Beware the dangers of over-correction. (The DAM site includes a stern warning about image use. Below, a drawing I made in their galleries in the summer of 2008. Never inked it. But I might yet.)

To think about an object contextually–how was it used, by whom, how much did it cost, how was it distributed, how was it made?–is to think about things in a social world. You can ask these questions of paintings just as you can ask them of Northwest Indian masks or comic books. Or amalgams of all three (see top).

Whatever else they are, paintings by blue-chip artists are high-end retail products. Lichtenstein’s estate is no friend of David Barsalou, because quotations of authorless comics are less a threat to prestige–and price structures–than panels by identifiable people. On the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation WHAAM page, the very comic is cited, but without a creator. Robert Kanigher, the editor shows up. But Irv went poof.

I suspect that Irv's revenge will come in future decades. When it does it will probably take the form of deflated values.

But beware claims of singular genius in the source material, too. The comic book business was–is–a workshop industry. Ever since Siegel and Shuster sued over the rights to Superman, the division of labor between writers and artists, pencilers and inkers and letterers, has made ownership a matter of diffusion, aesthetically as well as legally. The company owned the intellectual property; the team owned the bragging rights. In a way, Lichtenstein’s theft of these images just makes the circle a little larger.

Finally, I think I’d like to start a stupid contest. Who can find the goofiest claim for a work of art? I can’t very well enter my own contest, but I can provide an example. I set this aside when I first read it because I thought it represented a monumental misreading of material facts. In last September 23’s New York Times, Roberta Smith (an interesting critic when looking at the right art) wrote the following in a review of Lichtenstein’s drawings:

Lichtenstein’s art forms an ode to the Americana of comic books and commercial art, but it has about it a brisk cosmopolitanism that is also New York at its most New York, which is in the fall. The closest analogy may be musical: the songs of Broadway composers like Cole Porter, which radiate the energy of vernacular language being put in perfect working order.

So: Cole Porter wrote Autumn in New York? Wait, no, that was Vernon Duke! I guess Cole reinscribed the melody on a new sheet of paper, just a lot bigger.

Janet Smalley, Southwest American Indian paper dolls, Jack and Jill Magazine, August 1950

Robert O. Reid, periodical illustration, circa 1940

Irv Novick, air combat comic panel, All-American Men at War #89, January-February 1962

Roy Lichtenstein, WHAAM, magna on canvas, 1963, photograph by Matt Duarte, 2010(?)

D.B. Dowd, Northwest American Indian Gallery, Denver Art Museum, pencil drawing on sketchbook spread, 2008

Joe Shuster, cover illustration, Action Comics #22, March 1940