I’m a substitute for another guy. I look pretty tall but my heels are high. The simple things you see are all complicated. I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated. — Pete Townshend, “Substitute”
I’ve just done a couple of conventions over the past several weeks — C2E2 in Chicago and the always-fantastic Ithacon in – surprise! – Ithaca, New York. As always, I enjoyed pressing the flesh (in a neighborly way), signing a shitload of comics, including the ones I forgot I worked on, and talking with a lot of friends old and new. Even though my life has been one massive comic book convention that has lasted 54 years and counting, it’s a collegial environment chock full of swell folks.
Whereas I did not conduct a formal survey, it is safe to say the major topic of general conversation was “Artificial Intelligence.” No, not the type commonly used by our politicians in the southern states, nor the type often used in the corporate suites of many publishers. I’m referring to the computer devices that create imitations of the works of artists and writers all over this rapidly-boiling planet of ours. I suspect if some binary-workers created software that provided abortion care, our governments would be all over that as well, but ramming some people’s religious “values” such as matricide down the throats of those with differing religious values is a well-known diversion for our nation’s judicial systems. But, I think I digress… therefore I am.
If there is one place where the use of “artificial intelligence” started, and you may recall that I’m a huge believer in multiple causation so there isn’t just one place, it was inside the brainpan of the late pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The prestigious Museum of Modern Art declared “Roy Lichtenstein grounded his profoundly inventive career in imitation — beginning by borrowing images from comic books.” By “borrowing,” MoMA means “swiping.”
This guy knew exactly what he was doing. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were deployed in his earliest output, but evidently somebody told him it does not pay to fuck with the Mouse. If you gave a complaint to an infinite number of attorneys, you’d be serving it on Disney turf. This was a lesson that many satirists and non-profit day care centers and similar youth services programs learned the hard way. Lichtenstein destroyed his Disney imitations.
But Lichtenstein moved on to swipe the work of comic book artists, mostly as published by National Periodical Publications, a.k.a. DC Comics. Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, John Romita, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Giordano, John Prentice, Joe Simon, Murphy Anderson, Irv Novick, Ross Andru and Jack Abel were among the many artists whose work was copied repeatedly, and it is that word — “repeatedly” — that discounts any claim to homage. Swiping is how Lichtenstein earned his living.
Whereas he had good taste in victims, he swiped that stuff and was damned sloppy about it. For his efforts, Lichtenstein received payments greater than those the original artists often made for an entire decade’s output. Said artists did not own the rights to their comics work and received absolutely nothing. But the original publishers did own the rights, and there is no record of them asking for, let alone receiving, a red cent.
So now the United States Postal Service is rewarding the Lichtenstein estate with a nice set of stamps. This is in keeping with our government’s general attitude towards honoring grifters and pilferers.
Lichtenstein once said “I like to pretend that my art has nothing to do with me.” Well, he didn’t have to pretend. That line was absolutely true, except, of course, for his name appearing on all those big-ass checks.
Of all the above-named artists, only one remains alive today. His name never appeared on Lichtenstein’s paintings, and it most certainly never appeared on Lichtenstein’s check stubs.
You don’t need ethics or a fancy computer program to swipe art. A simple photocopier will do.
For further visual representations, check out David Barsalou’s Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein™ website.