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More art fabrications from the right wing

October 13, 2009 |  6:13 pm

Alma Thomas Watusi (Hard Edge) 1963 Hirshhorn When the White House last week released an official list of art borrowed to hang in the public and private rooms of the residence, the right-wing blogosphere was electrified.

And, no, not in a good way.

The list had been generally known since spring, but that story had appeared in the Wall Street Journal's culture pages, not in its hard-right Op-Ed section, so the right wing paid scant attention. Now the Free Republic website was busily declaring "Fraud," with delightful blogger Beelzebubba gloating, "Freeper breaks the story."

Michelle Malkin, known for thoughtful deliberation on all the day's events, shrieked, "Art, imitation and the Obamas."

"Fraudulent art" yelled Brian C. Ledbetter at snappedshot.com. The blog's self-described "resident extremist" helpfully produced an animation to, uh, prove his claim that Barack and Michele Obama had chosen to hang a painting they were too stupid or, more likely, too corrupt to know was a rip-off.

And over at Big Hollywood -- the site that gave us lifestyle-event marketer Patrick Courrielche inflating a minor infraction at the National Endowment for the Arts into a paranoid fantasy of a presidential propaganda scheme, which he has since been parading around various Fox News programs -- we finally got the P-word: "The Obamas Plagiaristic, Silly Art," said the awkwardly crafted headline.

The ostensible plagiarist who had the wingnuts in a lather was the late Alma Thomas (1891-1978), an African American painter whose 1963 acrylic color-abstraction, "Watusi (Hard Edge)," was based on a monumental late paper-cutout by Henri Matisse. "Watusi (Hard Edge)" is an important work in Thomas' development, signaling a late turn in her own work; its relationship to the Matisse has been discussed for, oh, decades. But that didn't matter to investigative blogger Beelzebubba and his Stygian cohort, although, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they probably just didn't know.

Artists have been copying, adapting and basing new works on old ones since time immemorial. It's how they absorb what came before and then turn it to their own ends. As long as we're talking biblical mythology, courtesy Beelzebubba, here's the late Renaissance painting scholar James Beck on Michelangelo's depiction of the "Creation of Adam" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:

Adam records Michelangelo's relation to the antique; here he achieves a type that recalls Greek fifth-century statuary, although his actual sources may have been later gems, cameos and even Early Christian ivories, or some unlikely combination of antiquities.

Beck (that's James, not Glenn) goes on in some detail about this journey back from the 16th century through the Middle Ages to ancient Greece; but you get the idea. Doing what Michelangelo -- and Thomas -- did is simply what artists do.

And if the Obamas had chosen a Michelangelo for the Lincoln bedroom, the right-wing screamers would still have yelled. Because for them, it isn't about the art; it's about scorched-earth politics -- about not giving the president an inch, and about lying or fabricating or just pretending to be knowledgeable if necessary. And with Google and the great, bubbling Internet swamp at their cloven fingertips, they can fantasize all kinds of foaming fictions about art.

And they do.

--Christopher Knight

Photo: Alma Thomas, "Watusi (Hard Edge)," 1963, acrylic on canvas. Credit: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Comments () | Archives (17)

Great story. Just something else for those haters to squark about.

That's great.

It's no wonder the right wingers always tries to squash funding for the arts; they just don't have a clue about it. Even my eight-year-old can understand influences and appropriation in art.

Although, I don't know if I'd go as far as the "cloven fingertips" comment, no matter how funny and well-written that sentence is.

cloven hands, maybe. cloven fingertips ellicit image of hoofs at the tip of each finger. loved the story.

Wow, this article is disingenuous. Brian Ledbetter didn't yell anything, as anyone who clicks that link can see. The yelling is all in this liberal blogger's head. He merely proved that the drawing was a rip-off.

And yes, Obama probably is too stupid to know that the work is plagiarized. That's not insulting, imo. I would have been fooled too, having only heard of Matisse and never seen one of his paintings. The solution is simple. Remove the painting. End of story.

That was potent.

If I’ve learned only one thing during my short visit here with Culture Monster, it is Do not go gentle into that good Knight. I’ve put up a fight, but his forte is disarming, and his words are enough to scare me away. They have. And they should. It is a reminder that all i know i have learned from googling and surfing the backswamps. Such drivel from an American idiot is no match for true scholarship and real connoisseurs of art and culture. There is no place here for sophist-i-cates like me.

Unlike the GlenN Becks of this world, whose artistic purpose is to mislead the public, my lame attempt here for the past couple of weeks was to show that even American idiots can be educated if they’re given the opportunity to ask questions, read, and listen to those who are well learned. I presented myself honestly as the caricature that I truly am—a harmless “wanna-be” student of art. As expected, I was insulted and berated for it by many a fake monster . . . until tonight. The anger here was different. It was palpable—very unlike the others’ attacks. We’re not all cartoon characters, are we?

Take Sponge Bob, for example. He’s just a harmless cartoon, a goofy goober full of holes. Or is he? Some people, blinded by their bias, misinterpret his genuineness and unjustly demonize him for his honesty and his faith. Yet, he remains innocent despite their attacks, and what is LEFT of him will never become so jaded as to lose all hope in the goodness of human nature.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I wanted to believe a character like Sponge Bob could really exist in all his silly, childlike innocence. Then someone came along with his big sharp lance and his angry words. He burst all the bubbles; he popped all the balloons. My house and my dreams came crashing down to earth, where I’m chased by the rest of the mad dogs and the madoffs. What a downer—and just when I thought things were looking up! I fooled, and in turn was fooled. Now I must wear the Cone of Shame and slip away into the backwoods of the Internet swamp from whence I came.

Let there be no doubts among you. I have plenty more LEFT to say that will remain unsaid. Before I go, though, allow me to pontificate one last time: Know your enemy before you attack. You may just kill your greatest ally.

"Artists have been copying, adapting and basing new works on old ones since time immemorial."

Rotating and recoloring someone else's work is not really creating a "new work." It's just an exercise and it would be common practice in the latter part of the twentieth century to refer to the source in the title at least -- or to put it in the portfolio and forget about it as exercises are meant to be.

Thomas' piece is dull compared to the Matisse, but suitable for the walls of people without much taste. She didn't go too far wrong because she stole from the best.

I find copying of works of art and calling them your own to be disgusting. Same as those who steal music and other works. Why are leftists so agreeable to these thefts? How does this encourage real artists from creating new fine works of art? I am sure this author would normally be appalled at such thefts except when it involves Obama.

For this author its not about the Art or the artist. Its not about theft of a Matisse. Its about left wing politics.

If the painting's relationship to Matisse has been discussed for 'decades' why no link to anything older than the current controversy? The only authority you cite doesn't even address the subject directly.

Are derivative 'art studies' really objects worthy of display in the White House? Couldn't the Obamas have found something more fitting from the artist?

What's next, dogs playing poker?

"it isn't about the art; it's about scorched-earth politics"

And when it comes to a right wing commentator buying an NFL team it isn't about honest journalism it's about slanderous scorched-earth politics.

Your apologia is as weak as the Thomas painting.

Gee, you convinced me. Producing a near copy of a ten year old piece is exactly the same as drawing from a thousand years of artistic tradition and producing unique works for which no direct counterpart ever existed.

Too many of you missed the point - there is no such thing as plagiarism in the visual arts. One cannot copy and paste a painting like one might copy and paste a passage of text. It's no more possible for a painting to be an exact copy of a paper collage than it is for a singer to exactly reproduce another's song.

When you listen to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" you're not hearing Hendrix plagiarize Bob Dylan, you're hearing a separate interpretation of the song; one that expands the original and connects the two artists. This is what is happening when you compare the painting by Thomas with Matisse's collage - nothing more, nothing less.

It is not a rip-off. It's derivative. Whether it's derivative in a way that creates something significantly new and of interest is in the eye of the beholder, but isn't in any way related to the question of whether it is a fraud.

If I recolor the Mona Lisa, turn it 90 degrees, and rename it, I haven't committed any fraud. I haven't tried to pass off another person's work as my own.

On the other hand, if I recolor a picture of Obama and add the caption "HOPE", the AP might sue me.

Interesting: The Los Angeles Times pays Christopher Knight to write a frothing-at-the-mouth rant, which in turn generates pretty dispassionate criticisms from the types he froths at.

Mr Knight, I went to art school too (Parsons) and if I had copied an abstract by someone else, turned it on its side and called it my own, I would quite properly have been expelled.

Do the Obamas' critics make far too much of their taste in art? Of course. Do the Obamas' supporters who call themselves journalists spend far too much time proving themselves to be journalists second and supporters first? Even more obviously so.

No wonder that major dailies are collapsing: better quality journalism is available from the pajama clad. They are the ones who speak truth to power, and even the once great Los Angeles Times cannot stop that.

It's a shame that paid "journalists" spend their time covering up scandals by ignoring and downplaying them, while the pajamaed ones do their jobs for free.

If only Christopher Knight would stick to doing what he does best (even when wrong)---writing about art. His readers would be better off, perhaps even learn a thing or two. He should leave political commentary to those who specialize in the field.

Near the end of his remarks, Knight does make an art-related point: "Artists have been copying, adapting and basing new works on old ones since time immemorial. Its how they absorb what came before and then turn it to their own ends." He quotes the late Renaissance scholar James Beck as an authority. Beck utilizes such terms and phrases as "the antique," "a type that recalls Greek statuary," and "[Michelangelo's] actual sources may have been. . . ." Armed with this analysis, Knight gently explains to the reader: ". . . you get the idea. Doing what Michelangelo---and [Alma] Thomas---did is simply what artists do." Not quite.

Note that all Beck's references to what the great Michelangelo absorbed from the past are couched in broad terms---ancient Greek "statuary," for example, not a specific sculpture, and "sources." Thomas didn't simply "adapt" the Matisse work, or "base" hers on his, as Knight implicitly claims. Rotation, color variations, and a few minor details aside, she seems to have copied the Matisse paper cut-out quite literally. That is not what artists "do"---not real artists, that is. The practice is an invention of the avant-garde.

(Neither work in question qualifies as art, I should note, but this is not the place to argue the point. Readers can find my views on the subject elsewhere.)

--- Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) --- http://www.aristos.org

There are a lot of "idiots" out there, and many of those are fairly naive about fine art.

This is a painting by Thomas, not a cutout by Matisse. It is not a copy, but a different take/view of a piece of fine art.

@ wudndux - your silly remark that a student would be expelled for "copying" is really quite absurd.

Why is it that every time people disagree with a newspaper editorial they say “no wonder newspapers are folding”? Every time a reader posts a poorly thought, misspelled comment, you don’t see the newspaper staff responding “Geez, no wonder the unemployment rate is so high.” I happen to disagree with your comment, but I don’t want you to lose your job; and God help us all if we ever have to rely on the blogosphere for news.

In any event, folks continue to fail to consider that artists often take inspiration from or appropriate the works of other artists; it’s a commonly accepted practice today. Picasso made 57 variations of Diego Velzquez’s ‘Las Meninas,’ Warhol made dozens of variations of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’; it may be a new idea to you, but there’s nothing unusual about this at all.

It is interesting you make an entire news article out of some comments on a forum. Wouldn't that be akin to the New York Times making a story about the comment pages on one of your articles- and you consider that news?

The funny thing is that many of the other posters on that forum go into the meaning and history and it became an interesting discussion once they started digging.


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