“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...