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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.”