Sunday, December 26, 2010

But Is It Art?

The above painting was just named 1st place winner in an art contest by The Toronto Star newspaper. When the image of this winning entry was published a couple days ago, the usual fawning accolades from the the ultraliberal* artsy fartsy community followed in the comments section. But then somebody rained on their parade by pointing out that this prize winner was clearly derived from a photo of Toronto streetcars in a winter storm that comes up near the top of a Google image search when you enter "Toronto-streetcar-snow".

(*For the record, I consider myself a liberal, but not an ultraliberal, which I think is just as wrongheaded as being an ultraconservative.)

And here is that very photo, taken by photographer Brian Labelle, which he'd had up on his Flickr site for some time. Yet, according to a follow-up article in The Star, the artiste will only admit to having been "inspired" by that photo, and only as one of dozens of others she was supposedly referencing in order to create her award winning painting.

Well, I'm just not buying her disclaimer. The "painting" is clearly a direct rip-off of Brian's photo and, in my opinion, hardly even qualifies as a painting either. For you see, I am able to get pretty much the same result by simply running Brian's photo through a Photoshop filter or two, which gives me the following image:

It seems to me that the artiste's painting is little more than a paint by numbers from a projected image (with a similar Photoshop filter) of the photo, with little square strokes of acrylic paint used in place of the pixillated squares. Voila - instant painting!

What personally irks me so much over this controversy is the fact that, not only is the artiste unwilling to admit to outright plagiarism, but the number of ultraliberal artsy fartsy types who have rushed to her defense, insisting that it's only "Similar, but not the same", and could have just been painted from the same location, that's all. Furthermore, they seem quite comfortable to accept it as original art, still worthy of winning the prize money of $2500.00.

As an instructor in a college animation program, one of my duties is to keep a wary eye out precisely for this sort of "inspiration". Unfortunately, there is a very fine line between a student being influenced by another character design that exists, and being guilty of outright plagiarism. I really hate having to make that kind of judgment call, but it's part of my job that I take very seriously. My advice to all students is to err on the side of caution. While it is considered okay to copy the art of others as part of the learning process, NEVER keep anything you like, nor any sketches you have directly copied from anything you like, within view when you are working on an actual Character Design assignment. Believe me, I have uncovered about a dozen or more situations over the last few years where I've had to have a tough talk with the students who, in my estimation, crossed the line. In many of those cases I have had to give a grade of zero for that particular assignment, especially when the same student has a reputation for being a repeat offender. Trust me, a grade of zero can seriously impede the chances of passing the class, when additional assignment grades may not be very high either.

Anyway, this situation with the streetcar painting has provided me with the ideal opportunity to address this sticky subject, as it also applies to the animation course at Sheridan. Frankly, I can't imagine how anybody who considers themselves an artist could be so blatantly derivative of work not their own, and not suffer from a guilty conscience. As far as I'm concerned, it shows a distinct lack of pride in one's own abilities.

Addendum: Here is a slideshow of the other winning entries. Personally, I think any one of entries #2, #3, or #4 would have been a more worthy 1st prize winner. I favour the cartoon depiction of Toronto's Distillery District, modeled in plasticene, but then again, artsy fartsy judges don't like cartoons.


Nicholas Hong said...

Maybe there are not enough good entries to pick in the contest..I don't know what is definition of "ART" in these days...

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Nicholas,

I just added a link to a slideshow where you can see some of the other entries. Several of them are quite good.

Brett W. McCoy said...

How can that painting not be derivative art? Even the headlights on the cars behind the nearer bus (on the left side) are in the *exact* *same* *positions*!

Brett W. McCoy said...

#3 (the snowflake one) is really good, I probably would have picked that one for first place. #4 is really good, too. And the clay one is cool (wow, would love to see that animated)

X said...

Even if it weren't plagiarized, I wonder how anyone could prefer that uninspired, unskillful painting over the other higher-placing entries. I guess if you ignore that it's devoid of any skill, you can call it impressionism.

Pete Emslie said...

Isaac, I agree wholeheartedly. But then, these artsy fartsy types, as I call them, are always highly impressed when presented with something that looks almost like a photograph, but isn't quite. They just consider it highly skilled painting. These idiots would likely prefer mo-cap films like "The Polar Express" over Disney's "Pinocchio".

C said...

From the article:

“On an emotional level, the feeling it evoked – I could feel myself standing there waiting for a streetcar in the quiet snow"

Gotta wonder--has this person ever had to wait for a streetcar? I haven't, but I've waited for more buses than I can count in the winter. This comment seems to imply that there's something romantic about this. There isn't. You're freezing, wishing your bus would hurry up, and looking sad faced whenever a bus that isn't yours has the nerve to appear.

And the art, oi. I do not like fancy artsy things. I like pretty pictures, sure, and things that are drawn funny. But this? As said, it looks like a photoshop filter. And it looks too much like the picture for my comfort. If it were the artist's picture or there was permission to use it, it wouldn't bother me so much since I've drawn from books before. But entering it in a contest? And claiming it was "studied" and that there were others studied! That's not how art studies work. Disney studios didn't copy and paste a bunch of deer photographs and call it Bambi. They studied the deer and made their own versions.

I swear, this world will turn me into a cranky old cynic before I turn 30!

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I saw the 4th place entry. Are you effing kidding me ? That deserved 1st fair and square.

Ricardo Cantoral said...


They have a word for these "idiots". They tend to be called "film critics". ;)

Bãpp said...

I don't understand it anymore Pete.
I ask this question everyday when I see what some "artists" do.
And a good trick is also.Participate on a contest with 3 artists.You are always a winner !!!!
For Myself it is not important :participate is more important than winning and I have more satisfaction on what people says about my work than what a jury
says.I am 65 now and I know how it goes with contests,
Merry Christmas an happy New Year,
jan :)

-jjmm- said...

Hey man I just loved your caricatures; you have a very powerfull observation and a funny still sincere style. You have also a nice "Hirschfeld" touch. See ya.

natg said...

The painting isn't really my taste, but I wonder what the artist has to say about using found images.
I kind of get the whole pixelated image found on the internet, new media meets old medium deal, but it looks more like a study to me.
I would love to know what's the concept behind the painting.

Martin Juneau said...

It's hard to call some Art piece a Artwork nowadays. There's too much artists than 40-50 years ago with those digital softwares and art websites you can found here and there. As a young artist myself, i think art plagiarism should be disqualified and cancelled to the jury contest, mostly since it's not the original author's work.

The streetcar looks really good. Nice composition but yeah, some like to cheat for win the big price, i know. ;-)

Tony DiStefano said...

Pete this has nothing to do with this post.I just saw your John Wayne on John Ks blog.Really terrific! The design ,color and bg all blend beautifully.One of your best .

Aaron Hazouri said...

As far as "artsy fartsy" types hating cartoons, I have to agree. My high school drawing teacher absolutely despised cartoons. In fact, her favorite medium was COLLAGE! A drawing teacher who prefers collage!

I hated that woman then and I hate her now.

But I love your blog!

Adam Gunn said...

Hi Pete,

I think even a lot of artsy-fartsy folks would agree that it's a weak painting - it's not original in technique (digital-like brushstrokes are pretty overdone) and of course the image itself not being original at all doesn't help much either.
I feel bad for the artist though - she only paints as a hobby.

Andrew Murray said...

hey Pete,

I just saw her site...she seems to have alot of photo "inspired" paintings.

Pete Emslie said...

Andrew - What, you mean you don't want to buy her tracing of the Farrah Fawcett poster?

Tony - Glad to hear you liked my caricature of John Wayne that debuted on John K's site. It's now up on here too!

L. Frostad said...

My favourite is the one with the monster vomiting Christmas cheer all over the places.

Visual Arts Brampton said...

@L. Frostad But of course that monster vomiting was just Tim Burton's creation for the TIFF window.


Unknown said...

cite your sources, cite your sources, CITE YOUR SOURCES!

When will people learn...

roconnor said...

You must REALLY hate Rockwell.

Pete Emslie said...

No, I don't hate Rockwell, because he shot his own models as reference, then exaggerated poses, proportions and expressions to achieve his own personal vision. That's what illustrators used to do. Now they just "sample" other people's efforts.

roconnor said...

Just trying to determine whether it's the technique that you scorn, or simply the work of a Sunday painter.

Maybe it's just anything outside your narrow aesthetic purview.

Sure it's not a great painting
but it holds no resemblance to that photoshop filter you tried to mock her with.

It's nice enough, though, and I'm firm believer in encouraging everybody to paint or draw or sculpt -not just professionals and "college professors". And Sunday painters shouldn't be held to same standards as professionals.

Pete Emslie said...

No resemblance to that Photoshop filter? By using that filter, it breaks down the photo into the simple squares and graphic shapes. Also, it happens to eliminate the snowflakes, which are too small to register. I'm certain that was the first step she used to breakdown the image before she did her own painted tile version.

I'd have no problem with what she did if she were indeed just a "Sunday painter". But instead she has entered her rip-off art in a contest and won, being proclaimed as an emerging Canadian artist by the Toronto Star judges. Furthermore, she has denied that she based her "painting" on that single photo, instead claiming that it was only one of dozens of references.

It all smacks of ultra-liberal "artiste" bullshit - the community of which you belong to, Richard. Those of your ilk will always defend any mark upon a surface as "art" if the one who made that mark claims it to be so. Jokers like you are not able to discern good from bad. Now, how about you run along and continue to hang out with your heroes, Amid Amidi and David Oreilly, okay?

roconnor said...

I agree that anyone should cite their references, if indeed she denied using that as it's source.

Maybe she used a photoshop filter to help, maybe not. There's really no need since the design isn't all that complex. Oh, and the painting seems nicer than the filter -but it's impossible the quality of a painting from a digital reproduction.

You have no need to get personal with me, little man.

Your false attributions of my judgments on art are more than enough to make you look petty.

I hope David OReilly is doing well. He's one of the nicest, hardest working guys anyone will ever meet.

Pete Emslie said...

"You have no need to get personal with me, little man."

Oh, like you didn't start it by using a mocking tone with me first? (ie: "college professor" in quotes).

Let's get one thing straight, O'connor. I don't like you. I consider you an Iago type, as I see that you instigated the whispering campaign that led to this character assassination by your buddy, Amid. I suspect you were also instrumental in getting Amid to do a similar character assassination job on me after I criticized the Ottawa Animation Festival poster of 2009. No, I don't like you, O'Connor, and if you come back to make trouble I shall reserve the right to delete further comments.

roconnor said...

Regarding that "Cartoon Brew" thread.

I showed the tweets to Jerry Beck, we all thought they were funny. He then showed them to Amid who made the post.

You'll note I made no comment in thread, since it was "Much Ado About Nothing."

Feel free to exercise your authority and delete this, or any other opinions which you disagree with "liberal" or not.

Pete Emslie said...

And yet you couldn't resist alluding to that episode on your own blog, as I recall from this entry. That link to the Brew article speaks volumes about you and your snide, holier-than-thou affectations. Here's what you said:

"In the recently stirred ochlocratic rumbling, some folks (at least one of whom's films have been continuously rejected by this -and presumably ever other -festival) bemoaned the Artistic Director's selections and his stage mannerisms."

With that statement you basically dismissed all of the posters who railed against Amid's harsh treatment of Roxanne, while at the same time essentially dismissing their criticisms of The Ottawa Animation Festival.

Oh, you're a sly one all right, O'Connor, but you're the complete hypocrite in my opinion. You're quick to condemn others for everything that you are also guilty of yourself. So, yes, having read a number of entries on your blog since then, I know exactly what you are all about. Proudly stating that you walked out of Toy Story 3, while at the same time proclaiming David OReilly as an animation genius.

Hey, to each his own, but please stay the hell away from this blog unless you want me to further shine the spotlight on your double standards.

roconnor said...

Funny, I thought I gave validity to the criticisms of Chris Robinson share, even going so far as to say I share some of their sentiments. Of course, I went to quote from his book as a good counter argument to that. One which has a lot of merit.

You can take issue with my work, my opinions, the work I like (heck, when I first David OReilly's work I thought -"this is going to be awful" before actually watching it -so I understand how people might not like it) -but calling my honesty into question is just beyond low. What next, equating me with Hitler?

Sure, I didn't enjoy Toy Story 3. Hated it. Lots of shouting, incoherent plot, too many characters in every scene. A reliance on the sentimentality instead of cinema. No where near the greatness of a film like "Finding Nemo".

Back to the painting at hand, if your point is that she should cite her sources, I agree wholehearted.

If you're simply using a bully pulpit to smash at a form of artwork you don't like- well, that's your right -but you can't really expect that people will sit by idly while you accept blind accolades from sycophants for it.

Pete Emslie said...

I don't mind real debate on here, Richard. People have disagreed with me on here and articulated their counterpoints civilly. But I have my back up when it comes to you and Amid, as you were both doing more than disagreeing with me over that silly, humourous little rant I posted regarding the Ottawa Animation poster. You were quite happy to join in the absolute character assassination on both Cartoon Brew and Sporn's site, not merely disagreeing with my stance on the poster image, but seriously calling into question my credibility as an instructor.

That crossed the line, Richard, as neither you nor Amid know firsthand what that work entails. One has to make judgment calls on art - it is absolutely necessary that a set of criteria be established by which to assess a student's work. Not to do so would result in every student getting 100% just for participating! That may be fine in your non-judgmental artsy fartsy world, but not in mine, where I believe very strongly in showing discernment in determining the merit of someone's art. If this streetcar painting was a student's work, I'd give it a zero for blatant PLAGIARISM, something you apparently are unwilling to acknowledge here. Everything is original in your artsy fartsy world, isn't it, Richard? Everybody's special.

Sorry, Richard, but the bad blood between us that started after that Ottawa poster debacle lives on. You earned your spot on my shit list. Deal with it.

roconnor said...

I offer any apologies if I attacked your professionalism in the classroom, I have no idea what that's like. If I did it was a mistake, and I most likely would have apologized for it then. If not, I double my apology now.

Having taught for the past 10 years, I respect anyone with the energy and dedication to continue to step into the classroom.

I will say your quick trigger finger at shooting off unfounded insults is on par with Amid (who is my friend, yes, despite my many and vocal disagreements with him).

Again, I agree that the classroom has different criteria than the "real world".

This painting isn't PLAGIARISM. You can criticize it for many things -but plagiarism is a serious legal claim. In the US, this wouldn't rank -I understand Canadian copyright is different, but I don' t think it's that different.

There's no need to jump to an extreme. That would be like me asserting that you just don't like "degenerate art".

As for your "shit list", what horrors can I expect? Should I up the ante and retaliate? If so, do we draw the line at women and children or can I blacklist your students as well?

Pete Emslie said...

Just compare the two images - it's blatant plagiarism, pure and simple. If it is not, then please offer up your definition of the word.

By the way, take note of this comment you made when first arriving on this thread:

"Maybe it's just anything outside your narrow aesthetic purview".

You happily accuse me of being narrow-minded when it is abundantly clear you are guilty of the same. We just happen to like and dislike different things, that's all. Aside from that, we are two sides of the same coin. I acknowledge my biases, yet you presumably like to think of yourself as open-minded and eclectic. For the record, I don't have a problem with you mouthing off about what you don't like on your blog. That is your right and privilege. But you're just as biased as I am, yet you refuse to acknowledge that. Our styles may be different - you are snide, I am brash in my approach, but we both editorialize on our respective blogs, so stop trying to paint me as different from you. Like I say, I don't like the double standard. You, Amid and Michael Sporn were all guilty of that, yet none of you were man enough to admit it at the time.

Pete Emslie said...

Perhaps if you read this thread
from Michael's blog again more thoroughly, you'll understand my frustration with those of you on your high horses who refused to acknowledge the double standard you're all so guilty of. As bloggers, we are not merely dispensers of facts and figures - we are in the business of editorializing and stating our opinions. We all descend into making denigrating statements at times. That's the nature of the beast.

roconnor said...

I just re-read that thread on Michael's blog.

I never said anything to assail your position as a teacher or artist. Nor did I belittle your opinion at all. I stated my own.

In fact, you pulled quotes from me -out of context -and tried to pin juvenile nicknames ("Dicky" "Mikey") in what can only be seen as an attempt to belittle those who disagreed with your opinion.

I hope an impartial reader checks out the thread and backs me up. It seems I may have been premature in my apology.

Pete Emslie said...

I was angry with both you and Michael for your refusal to acknowledge that either of you ever did muck raking on your respective blogs. You were both guilty of snide, denigrating comments on things you each disliked, yet I was being singled out as being the only one who ever did that. It was the double standard that I objected to all along, yet neither of you seem to understand that.

Anyway, there's really no point in continuing this silly argument. That episode is all in the past. Since then I have not posted on Sporn's site. I'd actually given up posting on The Brew many months before that after a similar run in with Amid over double standards. You're all a bunch of opinionated bastards just like me. Seems like I'm the only one who's honest about admitting it though.

Canadada said...

This reverbs with the high-profile case in the States of 'Garcia vs Shepard Fairly'. (Think I spelt that right ...:)! Anyway, you all can google it. It addresses the ever persistent 'problem' of 'knock offs'. Pure and simple. It remains a very GRAY area in 'copyright LAW', especially with the influx of 'mashups' and the like.

Steph said...

That's really disappointing, depressing and some other unpleasant words. I unfortunately see this sort of thing all the time in artsy contests. While I was saving to come to Sheridan, I lost a scholarship in an art contest (came in second) to a plagiarized work. I was very sad and I am sad for the artists who where cheated out of this.

Additionally, this could be re-created fairly faithfully using "Patchwork" filter: