I do quite a bit of skulking around on West Coast Native reservations and in deserted villages. A variety of unique cultures formerly thrived nearby where I live. Ours is the land of totem poles. Demographics change and populations move, leaving villages in dereliction. While there is some effort to revive the art of carving, and better stuff goes to museums, for the most part the rain forest enfolds and eventually claims those remaining. These magical places hold the ghosts of former glory, pride and familial ties, as well as inter-tribal competition and warfare. The weathered poles tell of clan, myth, personal wealth and bravado. In searching these solemn faces I look for an understanding of the universal human condition.
When painting them, I’m confronted with concerns of appropriation. Totemic figures and the stories they tell belong to somebody. While the carvers may be long gone, their offspring still hold some sort of sacred title. The distinct art of this coast, and the way of making it, is owned collectively by the cultures represented–the Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, etc.
Appropriation is the legal word for using someone else’s art as part of your own. The American Copyright Act uses the term “fair dealing” for purposes of criticism, review or parody — and claims this does not infringe copyright. The word “parody” is valuable here. Parody means to ridicule by imitation. While some of us have the instinct to ridicule that which we depict, most of us simply comment. Comment is certainly artists’ territory. In my case I try to show the cycle of life and death, the impermanence of facade, the return to the natural state, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. For those who might claim personal copyright of such subject material — it’s apparently ours for the taking.
In Canada we have a similar understanding. Fair dealing in Canada’s Act (Section 29) says it’s not an infringement to reproduce someone else’s work for research, study, criticism, review, or even to merely report. As artists are in a broad sense “reporters,” this is wide latitude indeed. Here’s the rub: if artists are going to appropriate, they need to “add to” that which they appropriate. Irony, metaphor, condition, counterpoint, or even artistic flair can make the art of others into your own art. Looking at the situation this way, we see that better art is made as well.
PS: “If you absolutely have to appropriate someone else’s work, do us a favour and make it say something new.” (Lori Lukasewich)
Esoterica: Promoting cultural dialogue is in the interest of both artists and the wider public. Those who claim prior ownership may need only to be asked for permission and recognized. Others may request a fee. When the fee seems out of the ball park, the potential appropriator has the choice of dropping the cultural dialogue. Several years ago a man asked me for a thousand dollars in exchange for the privilege of painting a clan totem. The pole was on the ground and rotting out. I asked his daughter if I might do a portrait drawing of her for free, and right then and there, she agreed.
Donate work to museums
by Daryl Jakubec, Canada
I do not feel it is correct to paint the totems for profit. It is okay to donate the painting to the original carver or his clan. I am an adopted Haida, and I would not paint someone else’s art. Most people I know who paint them explain to me that they are preserving the totem. If this is the case then they should donate it to a museum. I feel this way because it is how the native carvers feel.
(RG note) Thanks, Daryl. I don’t notice a lot of my native carver friends donating their work to museums. Selling — yes, donating — infrequently.
by Mary-Leigh Doyle, Calgary, AB, Canada
It has always seemed presumptuous that a mere onlooker could begin to understand what has been passed on through generations. Whether a spiritual image or political, historical or racial only those who lived it, breathed it, fathered or inherited it can truly understand it. I find myself torn as I greatly admire the cultural diversity we find around us but I struggle with my own attraction to the same and my right to attempt to represent it knowledgably. I do not condemn those who do not feel this way but I do question the validity of the message such work might relay.
There is 1 comment for Presumptuous onlookers by Mary-Leigh Doyle
Appropriation central to art making
by Robert Bissett, Naples, ID, USA
Can you show me an artist who isn’t appropriating? Only the blind create such paintings. Modern art was motivated at least in part by an attempt to avoid appropriating and be original. Seemed to work for a while, but look at it now. If one of your readers thinks he/she is not appropriating, please post your work and let’s discuss it.
by Jeanne Fosnot, Monterey, CA, USA
Commenting on the practice of using another’s art to make a commentary, study, parody, etc, most artists have done studies of other’s art. For example, Picasso’s many studies of Velazquez’s painting of the little princess and her family, or Van Gogh’s study of Delacroix’s Ascension from the Cross and so on. He always gave credit by calling it Homage to Delacroix or Studies of Velazquez.
When I was working on my Master’s degree in painting at San Jose State University, one of the Professors had been winning many national and state awards for his watercolors. One year, the artist-photographer from whom he took his material sued him and was reported to collect fifty million dollars for the plagiarism. This incident was a lesson to all the painters in the Masters and Bachelor of Arts program: if you use a photograph, give the artist-photographer credit.
The eternal appropriation of Venice
by Tony Lamont, NSW, Australia
I have just returned from my first visit to Venice. We walked the streets for 7 days rain or shine and loved every minute of it. The city is full of artists and has been for centuries. I think every brick and stick has been painted and photographed. Does this mean we are unwittingly guilty of appropriation or copyright infringement with our art today? How much variation makes it okay? How on earth does one judge this? After all it is not what is in one’s heart; it is the view of a judge that will determine if you pay.
(RG note) Thanks, Tony. I’m not in a position to say how an Italian judge might rule, but if you keep the idea of “fair dealing” in mind, and add your own personal spin to the Venice experience, go for it.
Art as a springboard
by Judy Lenzin, Lausanne, Switzerland
The terms of the law on copyrighting and especially the Canadian Fair Dealing Act (sect 29) are pretty vast and open to a lot of interpretation. A couple of years ago I got interested in the quilts made by the artists at Gee’s Bend. Someone had given me a set of postcards with this work and this inspired me to make a series of miniatures framed under matte board and glass. Each piece has the name of the original artist embroidered under it in a kind of caption or dedication. There are 6 in all and the big quilts form such an interesting body of work, that the miniaturization is a fascinating project. I’ve never had the guts to show them publicly in Switzerland (where I live), though, for fear of being accused a plagiarist. I wish someone could tell me if I have the right to show them or is this one piece of the work I’ve done that must stay strictly private?
Transforming the overlooked
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA
Appropriation requires ownership, which may be a cultural, and not a universal, concept. Any landscape with a barn, seascape with a boat, or market scene with stalls is depicting something that belongs to someone else, yet we don’t worry (at least most of us don’t) about appropriating what isn’t ours when we paint them. I would like to think that we honor our subjects by making them more visible through our art. Artists can communicate the beauty, majesty, pathos, joy, or mystery in things that are usually overlooked, unseen, or ignored. Rather than appropriating a crumbling totem pole, you are expressing its power to continue to move and inspire, even as it evolves with time. Although I can’t know for sure, I suspect that such power was the carver’s intent, not ownership.
by Vita, Sutton, QC, Canada
You worry too much about the appropriation concept. The artistic representation of anything or anyone that is not executed for the purpose of mass distribution with the specific intent of speculation belongs to us all. In First Nation’s shops there are replicas of their ancestors’ arts and crafts. Tourists take millions of photographs of the same items and you worry about the spirits of the past. In my view, there is more respect in continuing the legacy than worrying about the spirits of the dead. In the copyrights act, it should be clear that only optical or electronic reproduction of one’s art with precise intent of marketing is forbidden. By using your own hand, you could reproduce the Giaconda and no one could say a thing.
Get permission first
by Beth Mahy, Dallas, TX, USA
On commissions as far as “using” an image, I’ve used other people’s work. When I am ready to “show” it, I ask permission. I tell them, if I sell this, I am going to send you 10%. I have sent out checks in the past. They are always glad to get the money. Hopefully, most artists stand on higher ground by virtue of their calling. We should not have to be exploited before and then again after, just as we would not to exploit others. I enjoy sending the money to the other artists. I always feel that they will be surprised by my honesty and that our money-making has then become concert. It gives them another way to receive from what they manifest.
Collage methodology and rebirth
by Jill Ehlert, Cobble Hill, BC, Canada
I used Photoshop to enhance the contrast of the head and printed it onto transparency paper with my Epson printer. The Phrenology image appeared in Wikipedia and stated, This image is in the public domain. Its copyright has expired in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. I used that transparency to transfer the black ink onto my painting. I took the picture of the trees with my digital camera and again transferred the image/ink with the same technique as the head. I pondered for a time about the ethics of using this appropriated image of the head. I have the ability to draw, but the idea of using this image was more appealing to my artistic process. I feel that this is what the spirit of collage is about – found materials and images that can have a rebirth. I would like to think that the original artist would be delighted to think that the image lives on in a painting in the year 2007.
How timely your letter is. My fingers have been flying for days concerning what my artist friends and I believe to be a copyright infringement by a major (by regional standards) newspaper photography department. The issue is whether or not they can legally sell photographs and posters of anything their photographers snap under contract. To their mind, this includes images of artwork, not as part of a larger picture, just the work. You can buy a poster of said art for under $50. They are online with the paper’s copyright over the image. We have contacted an intellectual property rights attorney to see if this is some sort of loophole.
by Susan Avishai, Toronto, ON, Canada
It’s quite another issue when you believe your work was used as reference for another work of art. My drawing was published in 1991 in a widely sold book entitled Talking About Death by Earl A. Grollman. The film Schindler’s List came out in 1993. I cannot make the claim that the image was appropriated since the case never went to court. (Spielberg’s lawyers told me to back off so quickly that it made my head spin.) I couldn’t possibly have afforded to fight him and his lawyers, and it’s nearly impossible to prove. But it irks me to this day. What can you do besides eventually see their usage as a kind of unheralded compliment?
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. I understand your concern. Your image is, however, such a common one (I’ve painted something similar myself) that Spielberg’s lawyers would argue that the finger positioning was just a coincidence, and typical rather than unusual. If you had drawn a three-fingered child, and that had turned up on the cover, you’d have grounds.
Matter of principle
by Annette Waterbeek, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
I work for a local newspaper. A few years back, a sister paper had used a picture of food taken by a local photographer. It was taken from the Web and placed in an advertisement. The photographer made a case of it and won. The paper had to pay a $10,000 fine. At the photographer’s request the money was given to charity — it was a statement he/she was wanting to make.
The value of personal style
by Helen Musser, Terrell, TX, USA
I would not consider painting of totems to be copying others’ art as you use them in the total landscape to capture a way of life. Your paintings are going to a part of saving the history of the people who lived and worked there. You are saving the nature of their culture for posterity. On the other hand, I do see in others’ art some of my paintings incorporated. I feel complimented that they want to copy me. Others simply use ideas of composition to produce their paintings. I have probably done the same thing without knowing it at the time. As we look at art it enters our subliminal consciousness. The problem is that artists cannot grow if they continue to use others’ ideas, colors, and compositions knowingly. They only cheat themselves. Over the long haul it is how you develop a style that distinguishes your work from others.
by Ron Stacy, Victoria, BC, Canada
Long reviled, not so much by natives, but by the white academia, for what they call cultural appropriation, I have long been attracted by the graphic sense of the BC coastal natives. After a career in graphics and sign making, I was trained by a native carver, and discovered a latent talent for carving. I learned about the culture and the mythological characters and began to make paintings of these characters, using my own designs, giving them situ and colour, so they could be seen in a new way by those who wouldn’t have given this kind of art a second glance. I have never copied any existing carving or graphic, but bring my own sense to the characters of the culture.
Good and bad, I received a lot of attention for my efforts. Many non-native people told me that they had only seen the native art in its most graphic form and had no interest in it, but when they saw it done my way, it was attractive to them. Several natives accused me of dishonour and theft. I thought long and hard about that, and decided that those terms didn’t describe me, my work or my motives. Other native people told me that they thought my images were wonderful and were glad to see them. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, The University of Victoria and The Royal British Columbia Museum decided that my images were taboo, and not to be encouraged. Ironically, I noticed that almost all the books describing the native art and culture with words and pictures, were written by white academia. I have given up swimming against the politically correct current and have embarked on a series dealing with Raven, using my own mythology. I am content with that.
Fellow travellers became friends
by Julie Andres, Bowen Island, B. C., Canada
My husband painted this (and a smaller watercolour version) over ten years ago — he had seen the Nisga’a canoe on Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, BC, during Expo ’86. Many works of native art were being produced at the time for the international exhibition. The juxtaposition of the city skyline and the traditional art form that long preceeded it is the ‘counterpoint’ — but perhaps it is the title itself that brings to the forefront what may be missed at first glance. Years after the painting had been sold, Ian met a Nisga’a carver, Isaac Tait, who had come here to live and work. Later, during a visit to Ian’s studio, Isaac saw a photograph of the painting and recognized it as the canoe he had once worked on. They became friends and admirers of each other’s work.
Native appropriates native’s work
by Maxx Maxted, Nimbin, Australia
We have similar problems with mis-appropriation of our indigenous aboriginal work. Sacred family stories are ripped-off onto tea towels etc. It also goes the other way. I (being an almost white, cross Carib/English migrant) was a bit culturally annoyed recently by the work of a Waragul (Melbourne indigenous group) artist who, for her Masters Visual Arts degree entered a number of competent aquatints and embossed etchings that had appropriated heavily the ‘landscape of figures’ of the Tiwi people — 4,000 kms and 200 language groups away. They were openly exhibited in the Melbourne’s Koori Heritage Centre.
What we’re made to do
by Chris Short, Cudahy, WI, USA
My companion and I recently discussed an experiment that showed a group of children drawing in a group. One child would look at another child’s work and would start to copy what the other child was doing — but also adding their personal vision to it. He then compared this experiment with another where a chimpanzee was given a box that had to be opened in a particular way. A grape was inside so if the chimp wanted the grape it would have to figure out how to open the box. After much trial and error the chimp figured out how to open the box consistently and get the fruit. Then a group of other chimps were brought in to watch the first chimp open the box. When the other chimps were given the opportunity to try to open the box they all had to go through the same trial and error period and could not open the box from their observation of how the first chimp achieved it.
It would seem that appropriation is a natural human state and as long as we add our own twist or build on a previous work we are doing what we were made to do.
Inlet to Duck Lake
watercolour painting by Charlotte Rollman, IL, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Terry Krysak of Penticton, BC, Canada who wrote, “Does this Appropriation concept also apply to using a photograph that someone else took? I often get inspired to do a watercolor using a part of a published photograph. I almost never use the whole photograph for the subject matter, unless it is one of my own.” (RG note) Thanks, Terry. If you use someone else’s photo, include the photographer’s name in the title, like this: Sunset, after a photograph by Joe Bloggs.
And also Dave Edwards of the UK who wrote, “Living in England, totem poles for me are the stuff of legend. Does anyone have a photo or two of totems they could e-mail me please?”
And also Sidney Chambers of the UK who wrote, “We have a saying in England which I thought was appropriate: ‘To steal from one person is plagiarism, to steal from many people is research.’ ”
And also Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic who submitted a quote from Pablo Picasso: “I will steal from anyone but myself.”
And also Carol McBride of Canada who wrote, “This is not how indigenous people view appropriation at all. Their cultures are not ‘for the taking.’ We’ve been doing that for long enough.”
And also Edward Berkeley who wrote, “A propos of appropriation, aren’t you in a way quoting another art work, which: (a) it’s a compliment to the other artist, and (b) it’s something that writers and composers have often done, without malice or plagiarism.”
And also Helen Scott of New Bern, NC, USA who wrote, “What if, as we contemplate the ‘world of small,’ we take it and enlarge it so the grain of sand encasing the world a la William Blake becomes the size of a dinner plate? Or do we keep the sand, the hand, the wildflower and the hourglass tiny with even tinier images of the world, heaven, infinity and eternity? I wonder.”
And also Jan Bush who wrote, “I too have skulked… especially around the Haida Gwaii. The old villages carry ghosts of the past and the memory of Emily Carr. Well worth appropriating through the camera and the brush.”
And also Gene Black of Anniston, AL, USA who wrote, “Being in Alabama where growing and canning food is a way of life, the Ball canning jar is common subject matter. Would it be reasonable for Ball to take legal action against the artists who depict their product? I think not. The free advertisement should be welcomed.”
And also Judy-Joy Bevin of Australia, who wrote, “I appeal to folks’ sense of justice and honesty. What goes around comes around. Please don’t appropriate others’ work, it is beneath you, for a start, is my cry to those who do it. You are individual you have a unique creative brain. Use it. Make your own work!”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Coquitlam, BC, Canada who wrote, “We are probably seeing the dusk of copyright, and maybe that’s all for the good. The global network of art admirers who can’t/won’t afford to buy originals is growing way faster than the global network of legit art collectors — that’s the fact.”
And also Susan Stafford who wrote, “Reading what you have written is an aesthetic experience, like smelling baking bread.”
And also Brian Crawford Young of Scotland who wrote, “Thank you for your words of wisdom, which are always looked forward to and always give me pause to think. I want to just say that as well as enjoying the content of your twice-weekly epistles, I enjoy the clarity of your writing style and adherence to th rules of grammar. Not many in the art world combine sincerity, brevity and erudition in one handy package. Bravo! Keep up the good work.” (RG note) Thanks, Brian and Susan, and others who have written recently with similar sentiments. It’s all done with excellent editors, particularly Judi Birnberg and Lorna MacPhee. Other subscribers have written to say it’s not that our writing is so good, it’s that everybody else’s is so bad.
Enjoy the past comments below for Appropriation…