Sunday 5 May 2013


“The immature artist imitates. The mature artist steals.”
- Lionel Trilling
”Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.”
- Guy Debord

Sometimes these things have a way of working out.

Back in June, after Brighton-local maverick artist and DIY film-maker Jeff Keen died, I posted a short, somewhat-hastily-written obit in which I commented his work was “not pop art in the Lichtenstein sense of isolating images from pop culture and making them contemplative... there's an engagement with pop culture, even if sometimes a critical one.”

Then what should happen but Keen receive a retrospective at Brighton Museum at almost exactly the same time as the Tate devote a show to Lichtenstein!

Lichtenstein's appropriation of panels from American comics into his paintings has traditionally had us fans in uproar – and this has been no exception. At a specially convened panel at the most recent Comiket critic Richard Reynolds and artist/designer Rian Hughes took him to task, while David Gibbons has produced a parody of one of his more famous works (both below). Comica's Paul Gravett has provided this handy summary.

In general I feel that comics folks correctly smell something off about Lichtenstein - but are not always great at converting their gut feelings into words. Keen provides a useful comparison for, while his work also made frequent use of comics panels and motifs, I don't think it would produce as hostile a reaction.

In some literalist sense, both Keen and Lichtenstein are plagiarising the work of others. Of course it's true that comic artists took from each other all the time. Yet we're no longer talking about jobbing artists swiping the easier to hit deadlines, the equivalent of borrowing a fiver until pay day. Lichtenstein (if less so Keen) gained cash and acclaim for his copycatism.

To which I'd counter with Led Zeppelin, who infamously stole numerous old blues numbers which they reaccredited to themselves. While it was common practise in blues for practitioners to pinch licks and filch lyrics from one another, it's clearly another for a million-selling white rock band to turn up and claim to have written those songs.

Yet this is an ancillary critique - of the band's business practise alone. It doesn't prevent blues fans such as me likingwhat their music actually did when it took up those blues tunes. We just wish the credits on the cover read differently. Meanwhile, I have not the slightest intention of seeing the Lichtenstein show in London. Not while there's something so much better on here in Brighton.

To see Keen in the same light as Led Zeppelin, let's try taking Pop art at it's word. Meadows and haywains aren't really part of our daily life like they once were, so art has to respond to what's replaced them. Pretty much every day, I must walk into a newsagents. So pretty much every day I'm confronted with a cluster of magazines, each using dynamic layouts, gaudy colours and shouty fonts to try and win my attention. Its an ever-escalating arms race.

Lichtenstein abstracts one panel from that melee, and blows it up on the gallery wall (above). He puts it somewhere safe where it can be contemplated. (See this comparison site for how he systematically drained the dynamism and expression from the images he took, the very things which you think might draw someone to comics.)

While with Keen, let's look to the covers he produced for his “secret comic”'Rayday', for a kind of shorthand summary to the direction of his work. No. 2 (below) is dynamic enough, peppered with starbursts and sound effects. Yet look ahead to No. 4 (below below) for the gutters between text and image to be well and truly burst, a riot of overlaid images. Keen's work is about looking at that vibrant, cacophonous display and saying “let's make it louder, let's make it faster.” He's not cool but fevered, his foot's on the accelerator not the brake.

There's an old Wodehouse story where Bertie Wooster sings a blues song in his strangulated English, correcting the grammar as he goes. And we've all heard clueless clods singing the blues that blues-less way. Similarly, Lichtenstein drains all that is blue from blues while Keen gets in the spirit of it. Lichtenstein is appropriating. Keen, even as he borrows, is contributing.

More on that Jeff Keen show here...


  1. Nice piece! Desperately trying to get the retrospective books off the ground with Stella. They will happen! ;-)

  2. Thanks! And hope so!

    Dunno if you've seen it yet, but did put up the post dedicated to the Keen show the other day. I've updated the links here to take you there.

  3. Nice one Gavin. The Legion of Andy kicked off its new blog last week with a piece about Lichtenstein. We have been become obsessed with the facts that he didn't really paint Benday dots like wot everyone says he did, and other stuff about his art and what people write about it. Let's tell the truth about Roy! He is actually good enough that the truth should be told, IMHO. And there is more bollo written than truth. Not on Lucid Frenzy we hasten to add.

  4. Good to hear from you, G... I mean Legion of Andy.

    I suspect that the bollo comes because Lichtenstein is one of those totemic issues, with both sides bringing so much baggage to the table.
    For example, I’ve noticed how few comic fans show any interest in any of my visual arts posts. In itself that might be taken as just a show of good taste, but it seems to exemplify a wider trend. It leads to the ‘reverse Lichtenstein’, such as Barry Smith’s post-comics career in sub-Pre-Raphaelite prints. Once you discover Rossetti you can pretty much dismiss Smith as an inferior copy, but of course comic fans will do such a thing so rarely you can base a career on it, and he did. And this lack of interest easily slips into hostility, with fans taking up the Daily Mail conspiracy theory that anything after Constable is part of some confidence trick. Such folks were spoiling for a fight with those fancy artist types before Lichtenstein even showed up.
    Meanwhile, I suspect a lot of the Pop Art generation purposefully exploited the ambiguity of their chosen style to say different things to different people. The wider public could take to something which seemed more accessible than Ab Ex swirls. But the elite art audience, using their advanced discerning powers, were able to read a critique of consumerism. It’s a peculiar story, a cultured elite using the tropes of quasi-leftist politics as a means to identify them from a bewildered herd. Don’t know if you caught Alexander Graham Dixon’s recent BBC4 history of Pop Art, but it made me surer of that theory than I’ve ever been before.

    There may be exceptions to the rule (Warhol was pretty much an unashamed celebrant of consumerism), and Lichtenstein himself is maybe a little ambiguous. (He probably became too popular to remain the property of the cultured elites.) But that seems to me the rule…