HIS CHUCK CLOSE PROBLEM

I just read this post by Scott Blake, which I found after a Twitter exchange between David Sizemore (his own post here) and Steal Like An Artist author Austin Kleon. Go and read it really quick and then come back.

I’m not an intellectual properties or copyright lawyer. I’m not well-versed in the dogma of appropriation versus reinterpretation vs derivation vs plagiarization. It all seems fairly subjective though, doesn’t it? I’d say for me that it’s something that comes down to value — does the philosophical blur of “is this right?” add a certain crackle to things? Or just muddy them ethically? Which isn’t really much of a philosophy at all, admittedly, just a half-step away from knowing obscenity “when you see it.”

So I don’t have much of an opinion on the general rightness or wrongness of this sort of thing. Or to put it another way, I don’t care much. But here are some things that really jump out to me, uneducated and apathetic as I may be:

1) Blake’s tool sounds amazing. Just the horse animation alone is beautiful. Computers are amazing.

2) As soon as an artist starts looking for a legal workaround for his/her art, a red flag goes off in my mind.

3) As soon as an artist — or anyone — uses someone’s wealth as a reason they should have less rights in a given case, that’s like a whole platoon of semaphore flags gong off. I mean, I’m less inclined to worry about the rights of rich people, but that’s because I’m a snob with a chip on his shoulder — not because rich people have less rights.

4) Most importantly: Blake’s tool samples from existing Chuck Close artworks, it sounds like exclusively, although maybe only in part. Briefly, he subdivides an original Close work, isolates the discreet mosaic pieces, then loads them into his database to be used for “new” Chuck Close Filter works. It’s called “the Chuck Close Filter.” Where is the grey area? How is it wrong for Chuck Close to object? Perhaps if Blake were working in Close’s idiom, using a process very similar, and calling it “a Closian approach” or something, but he’s taking from actual artwork, creating new artwork, but calling it the actual proper name of the artist he appropriated it from.

5) Speaking more subjectively: part of what makes Chuck Close’s work interesting — beyond the obvious technical wizardry — is the fact that he has face-blindness. There’s a fascinating Radio Lab podcast episode about it. So for him, using a medley of different shapes, strokes, mosaic patterns, etc. is a recontextualization of the actual world around him, rendered for the viewer in reverse. Your brain sorts all the pieces, throws out what doesn’t make sense, and “sees” the image as Close intends. It’s a beautiful synthesis of artist, method, and audience.

So while I wouldn’t say that another artist using Close’s exact mosaic pieces is wrong per se, it does seem to be a unique displacement of whatever animated the original. Perhaps it’s just because I was very much this person in high school, but it seems less like art and more like a kid redrawing photographs in rapidograph pointillism. I mean, not to get into the “is it art?” debate — I think “is it art?” is always a self-answering question. But some of the spirit of the original is gone, and the only spirit that seems to have replaced it is “now on a computer, and without the artist’s permission.”

6) This is the most important thing, I think: Chuck Close asked Scott Blake to stop, first stridently, and then with increasing relief and eventual friendship, at least on the surface. Blake’s response was to pretend to be friendly in return, suggest that he’d love to accept the invitation, and then contact his lawyer to figure out how he could end run around Close.

This to me seems more wrong than anything else. In all the time he developed his tool, named literally ” the Chuck Close Filter,” why did it never occur to him to ask Chuck Close himself? Perhaps to work with him even, if he was such a fan? And then, when Chuck Close contacted him and asked him to stop: he reacted with slyness, then wrote a long post about his history of appropriating Chuck Close’s art, seeded liberally with general quotes about how art appropriation is fine, everyone does it, and ended by calling Close a “wealthy bully” for asking him not to use his art and name.

7) Scott Blake sounds like a smart guy, who has developed a fascinating tool that will surely live on under another name, and hopefully with a wider focus, one day. But it seems like Close rejecting what he’s spent so long developing without permission, using Close’s art and — to me much more imporantly — name has addled his brain. Beyond the legalities, the moralizing, and the breast-beating over his “bullying”, the idea that a Photoshop tool is going to be artistically valuable, much less useful, in 100 years seems delusional.

I don’t know. It seems very obvious to me — it seems less like a willful transgression and more like a willful oversight, like when your brain tells you something is iffy and you just plow ahead and later get brought up short. I don’t know what I think about all this appropriation stuff anyway. It seems more and more like artists spend more time defending their right to swipe from each other than they do making actual art. In this case, it seems like something that could have been addressed even once over the 11 years that it took Scott Blake to develop his misfortunately named “Chuck Close Filter.”

 

11 thoughts on “HIS CHUCK CLOSE PROBLEM

  1. mike b.

    Thanks for the read!
    I don’t consider myself all that educated art-wise, but I agree with you on all of this. I think I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it if Blake didn’t shake hands with Close while readying a gun behind his back. That just seemed like the worst way to go about that situation, considering Close invited him over and presented an opportunity to handle this respectfully.

    I think it’s a matter of what’s legally okay and what’s morally right. Appropriation isn’t new in the art world. Artistic merit will handle itself (though, in my opinion, his filter has about as much merit and use as that Warhol filter on Photobooth. It doesn’t re-contextualize anything and is just a feature that creates an effect.) And I think devoting years to defending and developing his medium has gotten Blake to act like he has to prove a point like his back’s against the wall, whether or not there’s a point to be made.

  2. Dylan Chorneau

    He’s not that smart if he believes anyone will care about his program in 100 years. Appropriation is only kosher when used to further express one’s self. Not when building tools, which is what this filter is. When Close uses a grid to enlarge an image, that is a technique more than a thousand years old. Many other artists currently use it with no flak from Close. This filter didn’t have to use Close’s style to be successful or even interesting, but did so out of lazyness or some kind of incredible dearth of originality. Perhaps the real problem is that this filter was made to capitalize on the brand Chuck Close has created, and not something new out of an old technique.

  3. DHARBIN! Post author

    Yeah I was initially saying he was smart because you MUST be smart to create and code a Photoshop filter. But then I went and looked at his Twitter: https://twitter.com/ScottBlake and now I’m convinced he’s just a dude who’s getting very mildly famous for complaining about Chuck Close’s bullying after spending 11 years copying his art. What a maroon!

  4. Dylan Chorneau

    David Sizemore’s public whine reminds me that Chuck Close is a financially successful artist because he is a good business man, regardless of his images or his statement. This is a universal truth amongst all artists who make good or bad art. If someone is going to devalue what you trade, you must do what you can to stop that. If you can’t, you can’t, but as a good business person, you are compelled to try and protect your value. Whether Sizemore’s filter presented any threat to Close’s brand can be debated but to Close it did, and that is why he acted.

    In addition I am HIGHLY dubious that it took him 11 years to make this filter.

  5. Eignh

    i don’t want to sound like a dick (but i will) but i first found Scott Blake’s work maybe five years ago and i immediately thought i was looking at the work of someone who is a little high on the smell of their own farts. his work is interesting, but every time i read something about himself or his work, there was a serious air of vainglory in my opinion.

    i feel like Blake is seeing an opportunity to make a splash. a kind of backhanded assault on one of the most well known and wealthiest artists obviously makes a lot of noise (particularly when you post emails from said artist getting in a hizzy, also not cool) and for some time art has been about making noise. would Serra be as famous as he is now if he hadn’t sued the City of New York? probably not.

    i think ultimately, they both come off looking stupid. only Blake does more so by his immature behavior, and his attempt to make himself and his work seem more important than it really is.

    i think you’re analysis is spot on.

  6. Dylan Chorneau

    I immediately apologize for confusing the names of Sizemore and Blake! No insult was intended.

  7. Chuck Groenink

    How is creating a photoshop filter art?
    Regardless of the legal arguments about fair use and the fine line between appropriation and outright theft, it seems to me that Blake is missing the entire point of Close’s work.
    By reducing his portraits to simple collections of mechanically organised tiles I think Close is absolutely right in calling this a trivialisation of his work.

    And to air your dirty laundry two years after the fact just seems weird. It just seems to me that Blake is more interested in getting attention through using the name of an actually famous artist, rather than may be doing some actual work.

    For me a red flag goes off as well whenever someone refers to the thing he’s made as art, and not simply ‘my painting, composition, sculpture, filter’. If you need to insist to us that it’s art, it shows that it probably isn’t, or that you’re worried it isn’t.

    And yeah, if he’d simply drawn the tiles himself, rather than scanned them, called the thing ‘The Closeian mozaique portrait-filter’ and not made a website that seemed to suggest he was giving away free copies of Close’s work, than I don’t think he would have been in trouble.

    Now he just comes off as a guy who is still upset that he didn’t get his boyhood wish of being painted by Close.

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