A page from the first issue of a comic book called O.M.A.C..
The credits for that issue:
Okay, now here’s a print by a very famous artist named Christian Marclay. (You may have heard of Marclay’s film “The Clock,” which sounds incredibly cool.) The print is called “Rriippp.”
The print is for sale online for £2040.00, or US$2600. From the gallery website’s description of “Rriipp”:
In this four-colour silk-screen print, produced to coincide with his solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, Christian Marclay continues his long-standing focus on the relationship between image and sound. The work features the word ‘Rriippp’, an onomatopoeic image lifted from a comic book. Treating the word as though it were a score, Marclay has carried out the action it suggests and dramatically torn the print in half.
“An onomatopoeic image lifted from a comic book.” So Marclay isn’t claiming to have drawn this image himself. But what’s not mentioned is the comic it’s “lifted” from; nor are the artists who produced the original that Marclay “lifted” credited.
I think what Marclay did here is, and should be, legal. He did add to and change the piece, enough to be fair use. (Admittedly, I favor a very liberal definition of “fair use”). And he also added a reputation, built up over many years; it is because of that reputation that “Rriippp” is a credible work of fine art that is sold for $2600.
But something can be legal without being ethical. Marclay didn’t draw this himself; he copied from artists who have collectively spent decades developing their skills. Marclay had an ethical obligation to credit those artists, by name, and he failed to do that.
Gallery artists have been swiping from comics for years, of course, most famously Roy Lichtenstein, and more generally putting odd pieces of commercial design – urinals, or soup cans – into galleries and museums.
It’s an old idea: The artist takes something disposable or overlooked, and by putting it in a “high art” context, makes viewers consider it as art.1 But it’s decidedly out-of-touch to use comic books this way, in this day and age. It’s no longer unusual to acknowledge comic books as art, and it’s not even unusual to see comic book pages displayed in art galleries. There are even galleries that specialize in comic book art.
When Marclay “lifts” a comic panel and puts it in a fine art context and in effect says “look, I’ve made it art“… Well, duh. It was already art. Marclay has just made it expensive art.
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Two postscript points:
I’m actually not certain the credits for O.M.A.C. list the creator of one essential element of “Rriippp”: The letters might have come from a commercial font, designed by someone who isn’t credited in the book. Then again, it might have been designed by the letterer.
Secondly, and too ironic not to mention: O.M.A.C. co-creator Keith Griffen, back in the 80s and 90s, swiped some panels from Argentine cartoonist José Muñoz. Giffen has said that they were not deliberate swipes, but just a result of how deeply he was immersed in Muñoz’s style.