Remember Steve Martin in the movie “Parenthood” twisting long balloons into animals at his kid’s birthday? Well, Jeff Koons, the artist known for reproducing commonplace items, like balloon dogs, has sent a cease-and-desist to a group selling bookends in the shape of balloon dogs.
Did you get that? This ace appropriator, baron of the borrowed image lifted whole from others, who was sued four times for copyright infringement, is indignant that someone else might replicate a balloon dog.
Of course, the copycat business is nothing new. Call it the Warhol legacy: quoting others as your own, keeping art impersonal and anonymous. Warhol once had someone else make a work that he signed. And he ordered the non-Warhol-Warhol by phone.
Maybe we should just come out and call the ontemporary art world what it is – a recycling bin. Painters and sculptors have been replicating themselves and each other for some years now. And museums tout the stuff. One of Koons’ Balloon Dogs sits atop New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In my town of Sarasota, self-proclaimed as the art center of the South East, recycling is everywhere.
Consider the Ringling Museum’s life-size aluminum statue of Don Quixote on horseback by Izhar Patkin, purchased for $100,000. There are five more exactly like it in other collections. The artist sculpted one in clay and a foundry cast it six times in aluminum. Talk about glittering generalities.
Consider Allan McCollum’s colossal cement cookie jar, also in the Ringling Museum collection, one of 16 duplicates that sell for $18,000 each. A cookie-cutter cookie jar, if there ever was one.
Consider the mirror image of Michelangelo’s statue David, which stands in the Ringling Museum. We covet this imitation so much that we’ve made it our city symbol. You see it everywhere: from street signs to garbage trucks. An “art town” emblemized by imitation art. Can you stand it?
And Peter Paul Rubens, whose work is the Ringling Museum’s main claim to fame, copied from art of ancient Rome and from the Renaissance, often modeling the fleshy bodies he painted after antique marble statuary. In an Art Times review of a Rubens show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in ’05, Raymond J. Steiner wrote openly about Ruben’s copying, saying that copying is “almost a way of life with Rubens.”
But Steiner seemed to be an apologist for the practice, when he said, “Though it may have a negative taint to a purist of today, such cribbing was not just a way of artistic practice, but a necessary step in the apprenticeship of any artists of the time…”
Balderdash. Way past his apprentice days, Rubens was in the habit of signing work that his stable of assistants executed and which he only provided the finishing touches. This process was used for the making of his epic The Triumph of Eucharist series – the Ringling Museum’s most ballyhooed possession.
While Rubens’ habit of putting his name to work made by his assistants doesn’t bother art experts like Steiner, it certainly bothered one of Rubens’ clients, Lord Ambassador Carleton. The artist was forced to write this letter to him:
Antwerp, Sept. 13, 1621
“I am quite willing that the picture painted for My Lord Ambassador Carleton be returned to me and that I should paint another hunting piece…making rebate as is reasonable for the amount already paid, and the new picture to be entirely by my own hand without admixture of the work of anyone else, which on the word of a gentleman I will carry out.”
But get this. Rubens excused what he did by writing a friend that Carleton “never gave me to understand clearly, though I often entreated him to do so, whether this picture was to be entirely original or merely touched by my own hand.”
He had to be asked?
I’m assuming I don’t have to tell y’all the moral of this story.