When the mainstream steals art
Emily Gosling is a journalist specialising in art and design. Here, she considers how artists feel when their work is plagiarised for high-profile campaigns.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But is it really so flattering when your work – your livelihood – has been co-opted, repurposed and repackaged for way bigger bucks than it had garnered in its initial incarnation?
Nothing is created in a vacuum. Ideas in music, film, photography, visual art and writing are born of a complex miasma of individual impulses, art historical reference points and the billions of images and clutter that proliferate online. It is, of course, more than possible that in the rapid consumption of imagery we all partake in that an idea or visual snippet enters our frazzled, overwrought brain; then later finds itself as part of our own, new, “original” composition, its origins having been promptly forgotten about. A little like telling someone a joke, only to find that the person we’re telling it to was the one that told it to us in the first place.
Commissioning design and artwork for music is a long process. Labels and acts often work with the same studios or designers. Ghostly International (Com Truise, Matthew Dear, Gold Panda) collaborates extensively with Michael Cina, for instance; Chris Cunningham is famed for his suitably warped Aphex Twin videos; Stanley Donwood for his eerie, German Expressionist-leaning works for Radiohead. But the commissioning process is still lengthy and carefully considered.
Few accidents happen in mainstream industries. There are vast creative teams, scrupulous legal departments and many stakeholders. No shortage of eyes have pored over every nuance and storyboard cell before a project comes to completion. And it’s with these larger commissions that accusations of plagiarism become more problematic.
Take the 2011 case of Beyoncé and South African photographer Pieter Hugo, for instance. Hugo, already a highly sought after and established artist, had a distinctive body of work called The Hyena & Other Men. One image was that of a man leading a hyena on a leash; a motif more recognisable to most as a scene in Knowles’ video for Run the World (Girls), in which she sports a towering bouffant and a white Givenchy gown, a chain with a hyena at the end of it in each hand. Such strange and distinctive iconography seems beyond the realms of accidental borrowing. Hugo told The New Yorker that he’d previously seen his images used in a Nick Cave promo, but that he’s a “huge fan” of Cave, so he found it “flattering.” However, he was no fan of Beyoncé’s work: “It all seems so derivative – the music, the imagery… I’m sure the Hyena Men are wondering if they’re going to get paid!”
Hugo’s response asked interesting questions about how artists might feel when their project is imitated. He’d suggested that if he likes the work that seems to reference his own, then that’s OK. In a Guardian article discussing the furore over The Shape of Water – which has been accused of copying everything from a Netherlands Film Academy stunted project to a production by late playwright Paul Zindel – screenwriter John Wrathall offered a calm perspective on the subject: “My attitude is like that line in The Red Shoes: ‘It is much more disheartening to have to steal than to be stolen from.’” But what about the artists who don’t have the resources to fight plagiarism, or those who’ve had their work pinched wholesale?
One striking case is that of British-Liberian artist Lina Viktor. Her Constellations series – featuring distinctive gilded geometric forms in grid-like arrangements on a black background – appears to be blatantly pilfered in the video for Kendrick Lamar and SZA’s All the Stars video, rather ironically part of the soundtrack to the Marvel blockbuster hailed for celebrating black female empowerment, Black Panther. According to The New York Times, Viktor is currently seeking “a minimum of a public apology for the unauthorised use and a license fee.”
today I wake up to see OVO has redone one of my 2015 tour posters designed by @collindfletcher for Drake’s new single. Poor Collin is always having his style stolen😬lol BUT I love being part of a team that’s so creative and iconic💕💕🐀😆 #drake #ovo #rat #roach #simp – *Rabit – Les Fleurs Du Mail available now*
In another recent occurrence, Drake’s Scary Hours EP artwork (featuring the two words displayed vertically as one bold sans serif overlayed with a Blackletter style font) appear to borrow from Collin Fletcher’s 2015 tour poster for leftfield producer Rabit. While they are certainly similar, it’s easy to see how a reasonably familiar graphic design trope is likely to be used more than once; and it’s hard to make the case for straight-up theft.
On the other hand, last year Skepta’s clothing line MAINS was accused of purloining Moroccan photographer Ilyes Griyeb’s work without permission. Here, this isn’t just a recreation or a likeness: Griyeb’s exact image is being used, with the MAINS work mark emblazoned across the bottom. “More than plagiarism, this is a personal matter: this work I’ve done in Morocco is about some family members and their struggle to succeed in a third-world country,” Griyeb told The Fader. “He came to Morocco with his team, did what he had to do, and left the country. This is new-age colonialism.”
So should artists just be flattered that their work is so great it’s been plagiarised? I’d say no. They should fuss and fight until the day that flattery is accepted currency for paying the rent, and a widely accepted route to recognition for creativity and hard work.