Consent in the art world
Where is the line between fan art and stolen art?
Recently, I started reflecting on consent in the art world, or more specifically, the lack of it. Generally speaking, consent does not seem to be taken into consideration when it comes to art. Brands copying each other's design and huge labels exploiting independent designers and artists, are unfortunately incredibly normal. Although it has gotten a lot of attention in media lately, we are still not seeing much change and few brands are coming clean. Webcomic artists are being discredited time after time and we come across countless of cases where for instance a new Yeezy campaign is basically a bad copy of a photography exhibit exploring identity and personal trauma.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between crime and compliment. For example, you might have noticed that the pictures in GQ's latest cover story seem familiar. Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott were both featured, wearing outfits and posing almost identical to pictures taken by the famous photographer Helmut Newton, of the iconic couple Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.
Thousands of people have asked the same question: Is this recreation of the iconic photos a stolen idea or simply paying homage?
Photographs are artistic imagery, and should be credited. So the problem is that even if these photos were just meant as a compliment and sign of admiration, sources should still be mentioned. Take a moment to reflect on this; Can you really pay homage without mentioning the original artwork? Especially as the Kardashians, and Kyle specifically, has experienced a lot of hard weather after copying artwork, this photoshoot can be perceived as distasteful. Some people argue that it would be more respectful if Kylie and Travis only had used one of the original photos as inspiration, instead of copying the entire shoot.
This is exactly why this topic is so layered and hard to discuss, because there aren't any specific rules you have to abide. It's not so much about the law, but rather about respect. Most people seem to agree that you can can re-do and recycle creativity, as long as it’s done with respect. But it's hard to know where the line is, because it ultimately boils down to everyone's own interpretation of the word 'respect'. For instance, some people have pointed out that Kylie should not be copying Jane Birkin, because of what each of them represent. Jane was known for her natural beauty in the 60's and was considered a femme icon that liberated women through sexuality. While people argue that Kylie represents the opposite and in that way, it is disrespectful to recreate her photos.
This discussion takes a new turn when you talk about tattoos. This trail of thought actually started when the Instagram famous @chellaman shared a post, that sparked a discussion in his comment section. As you may know, Chella is a deaf, genderqueer artist that rose to fame because of his artwork, YouTube videos and his openness about his usage of testosterone. He has now hit more than 167k on Instagram, and it is therefore no surprise that some of his followers have chosen to get certain of his art pieces tattooed. A few weeks ago Chella wrote this caption on ig:
"Recently, many individuals have been getting my work tattooed without notifying me. Some have even gotten pieces of my work tattooed that have had personal meaning to me, so I would have asked them to choose an alternative piece. I have either come across photos of the finished pieces or others have sent them to me. Most who I reach out to for compensation have ignored me. As much as it is an honor to have my work on another being’s body, I do ask to be requited. Please remember that artwork is real work and deserves to be paid as such!
Support artists !! Especially those of color, queer, and/or disabled!! Much love and thank you to all who have commissioned me in the past! xx"
People are getting tattoos done every day that are copies of other tattoos or artwork that they've found online, like a a sketch from Milk & Honey or a rose tattoo found on Tumblr. The question is: Is it okay to tattoo somebody else's artwork without their consent? Is it support enough to have the artwork engraved in your skin or should you ask for the artist's permission?
Something that most people agree with, is that you should not undercut or profit off of copying somebody else's work, but that is why especially tattoos are tricky to discuss. On one hand, a tattoo is a reproduction, which is why many bluntly call it plagiarism and demand that you ask for consent. Just because something doesn't have a visible price tag or trademark, doesn't mean it's free to take.
On the other hand, you can call this tattoo a sign of appreciation and love. I've seen authors tearing up when learning that their book cover is tattooed on one of their readers' bodies for the rest of their lives, but Chellaman's post shows that people react differently to these kinds of gestures. You will hear many people use the argument that although you should pay for a commission (the artist makes a personalized piece for you), you should not have to pay for a public art piece. Also, that artists will just have to deal with this, if they decide to share on social media, because they can't just pick what parts of the fame they want. Many people have also used the comparison "You don't pay a song artist to have their lyrics tattooed on you, and you never ask Van Gogh if you want to tattoo his famous sunflowers." While I don't necessarily agree with these statements, I have to admit that I agreed with one of the comments concerning Chella's ig post; Chella did not want certain of his pieces tattooed on others' bodies because they had personal meaning, but personally I believe this argument is a bit weak. The whole point of art is that each individual is supposed to create their own personal meaning and interpretation.
But ultimately, I think that Chella (and so many other artists) just want respect. Instead of paying too much attention to each little detail of this ig post, we should all agree that artists across the whole world deserves more recognition - and consent is definitely an important part of that. They are people who put time and work into their pieces and needs to buy groceries, pay rent and bills, just like the rest of us. Tattoos take some planning anyways, so maybe you should try to reach out to the artist before getting it? And maybe think twice before you get too inspired by an art piece and forget to credit it?
Be aware of your actions, because imitation isn't always the highest form of flattery.