Saturday, January 26, 2008

Artsy: The Intellectual Property of Art

The Washington Post has a fascinating Blake Gopnik article this morning about Baltimore artist Christine Bailey. Seems that Bailey's new exhibit at 100 East Pratt is truly provocative. We're not just talking about crucifixes in urinals here, either. Bailey challenges some of the last, most dangerous taboos in the art world: plagiarism and the role of business in art.

Bailey's current work is original, but stylistically it is nearly identical to that of another Baltimore artist, Cara Ober. Bailey coopted Ober's style without her permission, but very purposefully. In doing so, she addresses two important questions. First, is it unethical to consciously and openly copy the style of another artist? We're not talking about forgery here - just imitation.

And second, why isn't it acceptable to call the art world what it is - a business? Ober's work is commercially viable in this market. Does making art that sells somehow make an artist less authentic?

I find this fascinating and am sort of in awe of Bailey. She's managed to be controversial and provocative and start a conversation by challenging taboos within her own community of artists. That, to me, is much more brave than, say, creating a sculpture that trashes someone else's religious beliefs. (As an aside: I'm not saying that's not art. But I also don't think it's wildly brave and it's certainly not new. This is new.)

Oh - and how is this about food? Well, as soon as I started reading the article, I was reminded of this NYT article from last summer. The article outlines the intellectual property lawsuit filed by Rebecca Charles, owner of Pearl's Oyster Bar in Manhattan, against her former sous-chef and current owner of Ed's Lobster Bar (also in Manhattan), Ed McFarland.

I'm not sure what's going on with that suit right now, and a google search doesn't turn up a whole lot. Obviously, the two cases are somewhat different - it's much less controversial for a chef to focus on the business end of things than for a visual artist to do so (in fact, chefs who are all "artiste" are a) annoying and b) usually not that successful). But the questions of intellectual property and, well, self-respect within a chosen profession (one that could really be considered a calling)...those are clear similarities between the two cases.

The Gopnik article includes quotes from Cara Ober, the artist who's work was copied. While she was initially quite upset, she's mellowed on the subject, in part because she understands that Bailey's motivation was to be provocative.

There are a lot of layers to this issue.

UPDATE: This issue is getting a lot of press. This Washington City Paper article adds some important context to the whole affair. Also, DCArtblog has a more in-depth analysis of the original article than I could ever offer (he is, after all, actually an art blogger). Both of these articles add a lot to the discussion.

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