Considering the Ethics of Lateral-Appropriation in Regards to the Ongoing Debate, in Some Circles, of the Quasi-Case of Bajagic vs. Novitskova
by Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, January 2013
One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
– T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood, 1921
Every artist who is under the age of forty that I know of, or know personally, appropriates quite regularly in their practice. It’s a result of myriad factors, perhaps the most obvious of which is the ubiquity of the internet as a matter-of-fact aspect of our everyday lives. I, too, regularly appropriate images, video, and sound elements from popular culture into my own work and rarely think twice about the larger implications of these actions. When an idea or image reaches a certain level of public visibility or cultural presence, it is, in my opinion, open for fair use. Perhaps what gives me peace in regards to this is that I feel that the action of appropriation is evident in my second-usage; nobody is likely to assume that I’m claiming that I shot footage of dozens of infants learning to swim, or that I am the composer who created the ludicrous “duhn, duhn” sound from Law & Order.
Appropriation is generally deemed ethical when the original work is transformed in some capacity. There’s much debate about what constitutes transformation, exactly, but I’ve always considered that recontextualization itself is tantamount to transformation. At the heart of recontextualization is an understanding of the original context from which an image or idea comes, and an intentional change of context by the artist. It’s fair to say that even the smallest change can give something an entirely different meaning, and much of the history of contemporary art is hinged on artists doing just that. The digital realm is a seemingly limitless expanse of fodder for future appropriations, and many of us comb it regularly in the pursuit of things to sample, remix, rework, and ultimately recontextualize. The assumption though, that whatever is online is fair game, does, in some instances, create problematic situations.
One such situation arose recently when Estonian-born, Netherlands- and Berlin-based visual artist Katja Novitskova appropriated an image from Montenegrin-born, United States-based visual artist Darja Bajagic and exhibited the work in an exhibition, MACRO EXPANSION, at Kraupa-Tuskany in Berlin in November of 2012. The image used was not originally credited to Bajagic in the context of Novitskova’s exhibition, causing a tension between the two artists and raising some germane questions about the way that we as visual artists reemploy imagery and ideas. For context, it is relevant to note that Novitskova encountered the image in the feed of her Tumblr dashboard–the interface of the social networking micro-blogging site on which the aggregated content of a user’s followed blogs appears.
In their own individual practices, Bajagic and Novitskova appropriate often, though the sources are, most often, corporate imagery or National Geographic photography, respectively. Bajagic’s work is rooted in painting and utilizes stock photos of women from advertisements or similar sources, and she regularly posts constructed screen grabs to her Tumblr blog as works in their own right. Novitskova’s work is more overtly comical and sculptural, explicitly appropriating colorful images of animals and sportswear, and repurposing physical commercial objects. Each of the artists owes much to the history of appropriation in the visual arts. What is unusual about the act of appropriation in question is that the content was not borrowed from someone “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” Rather, Novitskova borrowed directly from a peer without explicit permission. This requires that we address the ethics of such an action, though I’m cautious about labeling Novitskova’s deed as right or wrong–those terms lack the nuance to address the paradoxes present here–Novitskova argues that she didn’t even know she was appropriating Bajagic.
Surely readers have heard the misquotation, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” often attributed to Pablo Picasso. Maybe Picasso said that at some point, who knows? Washington, DC-based attorney Nancy Prager, in a post on her blog from May of 2007, does an excellent job of elucidating the history of this often “bastardized” (her words) motto. She found that the origin of the quote, itself another misquotation, is commonly attributed to T.S. Eliot as, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
It is, though inaccurate, a lovely sentiment, as it would afford us as visual artists or producers of culture carte blanche to borrow, steal or reuse anything we find as we see fit. However, the quote itself is grossly-simplified and removed from its original context: a critical piece of writing by Eliot about playwright Philip Massinger. As Prager points out in her blog post, Eliot is referring to the fact that Massinger borrowed too liberally from Shakespeare, another playwright with whom he overlapped in time. It’s not that one can’t borrow from a generational peer, of course they can do that. What might make the act more ethically sound is simply asking another artist if they mind being appropriated. The worst that they can do is say no, at which point the appropriator has a choice to make. Regardless of whether or not one is granted permission, one has acknowledged the point of origin of the image or idea in question, and will not later appear to have acted naively or without due research.
One thing I believe most younger artists agree upon is that when we appropriate something, we’re doing so in an attempt to further explore its significance in the social or cultural sphere. In his essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” originally published in 2007 in Harper’s, novelist Jonathan Lethem uses dozens of appropriations from original sources to craft a convincing argument for the merits of second-use. This cut-and-paste method nods to William S. Burroughs, Bob Dylan and countless others who freely reworked the original content of others into their own practices. It’s difficult to figure out exactly how to attribute parts of the essay to Lethem since so much of it has existed in other contexts previously, but that’s obviously the point.
Nonetheless, in the interest of simplicity, I’ll simply relay that in a section titled “THE BEAUTY OF SECOND USE,” Lethem argues that appropriated works have been paid a type of tribute through repurposing. Further, he states, “Artists and their surrogates who fall into the trap of seeking recompense for every possible second use end up attacking their own best audience members for the crime of exalting and enshrining their work.” Having read through and taught this essay numerous times, it’s my understanding, through consultation with his citations in the endnotes, that this particular passage is actually Lethem’s own. I certainly agree with him to an extent. Where it is a bit murkier is when the appropriated artist isn’t recognized or referenced in the appropriation. I’ll argue that in cases like this, it’s not “second use” that we’re talking about, it’s closer to actual theft.
On December 11th, 2012, Bajagic, whom I am connected to on Facebook, posted a series of links and the status update: “Katja Novitskova [tagged] prints my image (a work from September of 2011) for her most recent show and calls it her own…”
The links included a review on Berlin Art Link’s website by Melissa King of Novitskova’s solo exhibition “MACRO EXPANSION” at Kraupa-Tuskany, and a link to a post on Bajagic’s Tumblr from September of 2011. The image in the Tumblr post is a screen grab of a drawing by Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506) that shows cropping and zooming tools generally found on image databases or museum archive websites. For her exhibition, Novitskova printed this digital image and mounted it on wood panel as a discrete object titled “Geometria MMXII.”
Two months prior, on October 12th, 2012, Novitskova had sent Bajagic a Facebook message inquiring about the Tumblr post. The message read:
i once liked this Tumblr post you did http://dbajagic.tumblr.com/post/10523317556
i really like this image, and would love to know what is the original old image and where you found it or took it from..
thanks a lot in advance!
Several weeks later, on November 3rd, 2012, Bajagic replied:
hey katja! sorry for the delay i have a bad habit of reading messages and then delaying reply… it is an old tarot card of “geometry”… i looked through my favorites to see if i can find the original site but i can’t… but i know for sure it is an old tarot card of “geometry”… i think it is italian… i hope this helps! x
Novitskova’s exhibition opened on November 17th, 2012 and upon the posting of the Berlin Art Link review on December 10th, 2012, Bajagic saw that the screen grab she had generated and posted to her Tumblr had been printed, mounted, and included in the exhibition. The original posting of the review, which includes an image of the piece mounted on the wall, did not list Bajagic as an author or contributor to the piece. However, it should be noted that the writer of the review, Melissa King, is not a personal acquaintance of either Novitskova or Bajagic, and that the review itself was developed independently of either party’s input.
It is my understanding that Bajagic then posted the previously referenced Facebook status update, as well as a similarly worded post on her Tumblr. Numerous comments were posted to the status update over the course of the next twenty-four hours from Facebook users on both sides of the argument, including several comments from Novitskova herself providing links to the sources of other appropriated images she’d employed in the same exhibition. Bajagic and Novitskova then participated in a lengthy discussion via email with Nick Scholl, an editor at DIS Magazine, as he attempted to mediate a conversation about the logical next steps to take. There hasn’t been a post to DIS as of yet in regards to this, and Scholl has not yet replied to a request to offer his thoughts for this writing.
Both Novitskova and Bajagic have been gracious and forthcoming in my requests to each of them for their perspective in regards to the screen grab in question. It is a testament to both’s enthusiasm for rigorous dialogue about concerns of authorship in twenty-first century contemporary art, especially as authorship is complicated by the internet. What’s admittedly difficult for me to ascertain is where Novitskova’s action falls on a scale of ethics.
According to Bajagic, she views dbjagic.tumblr.com as a second website that archives her practice. Many artists utilize several different Tumblrs for different reasons. One might be, for example, exclusively reserved for their own works while another is used to reblog images that cycle through their own dashboard that they find funny or amusing. It’s true that some fuse both into a singular blog, but a little time spent looking can usually give a viewer a sense of what type of format the artist is employing. Scrolling through dbajagic.tumblr.com, it seems to me to be very evident that the majority of the works presented are authored by Bajagic, or are in some way related to an exhibition she is in or a commission that she has done.
That Bajagic’s Tumblr is specific to works of her own authorship isn’t in question. What is in question is how far Novitskova looked into the site before deciding that the screen grab posted in September of 2011 was openly available for her own use. I can’t in good faith make a claim one way or the other, but it is interesting that Novitskova contacted Bajagic inquiring after the specifics of the screen grab’s origins. Does that imply that she did, in fact, recognize Bajagic as the author of the image? Bajagic thinks so.
What further complicates the ethics of Novitskova’s action is the language used in their Facebook correspondences. Bajagic’s response to Novitskova’s inquiry, included above, doesn’t explicitly state that she views the screen grab as a work of her own authorship, or that she actually produced the screen grab herself. But one can reasonably assume that Novitskova, who follows Bajagic on Tumblr and who was her Facebook friend, has been exposed to Bajagic’s aesthetic and process in the past. Bajagic believes that Novitskova’s inquiry itself implied that she knew Bajagic considered it to be a work she’d authored, as she states in a Facebook message to Novitskova on December 11th, 2012:
And to clarify, you asked me about the *origins* of that image, and where the screenshot was taken. It was implied that the screenshot is mine, and I didn’t feel that that needed clarification. I’ve exhibited it before, on top of everything.
Hei Darja, sorry about that really. I havent checked your website in full. So i really saw it as just a found image. I would never use it if I knew it’s your piece. It really never crossed my mind. I think the lightness in the situation comes from the fact that this is a a very interesting problem in term of art. All images in my show have initial ‘authors’
The trouble here is that there is no way to validate either perspective. I don’t necessarily see in Novitskova’s original message inquiring after the source of the image a clear indication that she understood it to be a work by Bajagic. On the flip side, it’s troublesome to see Novitskova claim that she hadn’t checked Bajagic’s website in full. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not our responsibility as peers to comb carefully through each other’s websites in the interest of making sure that we don’t repeat unintentionally–that would be ludicrous. But when an artist has a clear understanding that an image was posted by another artist, it seems like a few extra clicks in the interest of investigating the context of the image would be a little more diligent, research-wise.
A) How much energy should an artist using appropriation put into understanding the context of their source material?
B) When and how is lateral-appropriation ethical?
Regarding the former, it seems to me that the employment of appropriated imagery is legitimately a critical artistic practice when the appropriator understands the implications of the original context of an image or idea. Randomly cutting-and-pasting images is certainly fun in its youthful ambivalence and anarchical exuberance, but it does raise a question regarding what exactly the artist is communicating about the borrowed imagery. Naturally, one could argue that the very non sequitur mindset of this approach is itself an active critique of a culture of spectacle where visual stimulation has become akin to white noise, but that seems like such an obvious and sophomoric foundation for making art. Of course there are too many random, meaningless images in the world and online. Nobody needs to tell anybody that.
The point here isn’t that one’s art making can’t be intuitive or even enjoyable. There’s an undeniable magic in that, and I fully support an artist trusting their instinct when it comes to formal or procedural choices when they’re making work. But when it comes to selecting pre-existing imagery, at the risk of sounding conservative, I firmly believe that an artist needs to have thoughtfully considered the various ways in which an audience is going to read that image, and at least have the capacity, when asked, to communicate accurately the context from which the image comes.
I don’t think that Novitskova was attempting to be deceptive or underhanded in her employment of Bajagic’s screen grab. She did look into it enough to deduce that the original drawing was by Mantenga, but it’s unfortunate that, according to her, she didn’t take a few additional minutes to explore Bajagic’s website or Tumblr to ascertain that this was an intentionally framed and captured work of art that was intended, as Bajagic stated to me, to be “autonomous.” And as stated previously, it is unlikely that Novitskova was unfamiliar with Bajagic’s methods due to their connections via social media and her documented contact inquiring after the source of the image. It is not, in my opinion, tantamount to overt theft, per se, but it is the result of a lackadaisical process of research.
Now, in consideration of the second question, when and how lateral-appropriation is ethical, the answers are not cut and dry. When I describe appropriation as being lateral, I’m referring to the act of borrowing from a peer or contemporary who is essentially an equal–counter to borrowing from “authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” The problem with lateral-appropriation is that it risks foregoing a critical engagement with an original image or idea. Because the appropriation may not be understood by an audience as such, it lacks the second use value of promoting further discourse.
This is why the appropriation of Bajagic’s screen grab, whether intentional or not, is ultimately damaging to her rights as the author of the image. Novitskova and Bajagic are, more or less, generational art peers. They are close in age and possess circles of acquaintances that overlap quite regularly. Their works are viewed digitally via identical platforms. We could argue over which is presently enjoying more international exposure, and it is likely that Novitskova would be considered by most to have more public visibility. But we can’t predict where either will be in five years’ time, and despite Novitskova’s practice being better known in a relatively objective sense, they’re of the same context. So what is at risk when borrowing from a peer artist is that their ownership over an idea or image will be negated simply by it having been presented by another artist in a broader fashion before they had the chance to do so.
Most readers will be familiar with Sherrie Levine’s appropriation project in which she re-photographed works from Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for her exhibition After Walker Evans in 1980 at Metro Pictures. In this situation there existed a cultural power imbalance between the two artists, both generational and in terms of gender, that renders Levine’s appropriations a critical engagement with the originals. The act of the appropriation itself was political and is the location of the art in the process; the photographs exhibited by Levine are simply documents archiving this action. And, unarguably, credit was given where credit was due. Despite the cheekiness of the title and the satire inherent in Levine’s execution, Evans’ works retain their authority as products of their creator. Referring back to the Lethem essay, one of his main points in discussing the cultural value of second use is that a thoughtful and culturally relevant appropriation leaves the original intact. It can be a satire or even a mockery of an existing image or idea, but second use doesn’t delete origin.
An issue with lateral-appropriation besides the risk of the originator of an image losing credit is also that it places them in an awkward scenario in which they must make a request to the appropriator to receive said credit. This is an unfortunate position as it then creates a substantial power imbalance between two individuals who previously were peers. Regardless of Novitskova’s intentions in printing and mounting the screen grab, when that work came to the attention of Bajagic, she was understandably angered and felt slighted. The imbalance here is that Bajagic is now required to provide documentation and proof that she is the author of something that she did indeed produce, at the risk of appearing petty or jealous. That power imbalance, tipped in Novitskova’s favor, doesn’t have anything to do with rigorous critique like Levine’s practice. It’s simply an unfair outcome of casual image-grabbing.
In placing the debate in a public forum such as Facebook, Bajagic took a gamble. The ensuing conversation, and outcome, could have gone either way. Mutual acquaintances between Bajagic and Novitskova, digital or corporeal in terms of the nature of those relationships, were required to take a side, if they chose to participate in public dialogue. This understandably created apprehension on the part of those individuals, regardless of their opinion. The resultant toxic atmosphere of swearing allegiances acts as a deterrent to the appropriated to make a statement in their own favor in the first place.
Sticking up for oneself in a scenario like this is not a simple action. One must weigh the value of being recognized as the author of an image against the potential fallout from their peer community who might not take their side for a variety of reasons. Further, when the intention of the appropriator is still unclear and could hypothetically have been, for lack of a better term, innocent, there is much at stake for the emerging artist who’s been appropriated. Younger artists depend greatly on their networks of peers as a support system–they provide opportunities for exposure, further networking, and, most importantly, they act as critics. There exists a natural drive to share what we produce with as wide an audience as possible, and tools like Facebook, Tumblr, Vimeo and others can be wonderfully useful in reaching new viewers. However, caution is advised, as online content has a way of becoming severed from its source very quickly. When an image is recycled by a peer artist without recognizing its source, it’s not an easy task to vocalize one’s disapproval. Besides the author appropriated, it’s also difficult for any member of their larger network to publicly position themselves in opposition to any member of the group.
Through her communications with Bajagic, Novitskova was for the most part cordial, albeit sometimes coming across as intentionally naive to the seriousness of the situation from Bajagic’s perspective. She did offer on several occasions to credit Bajagic in the title of the piece, or through a written component that would accompany the work to tell the story of how the three-dimensional object in her show came to be. At a certain point though, the communication broke down–Kraupa-Tuskany Gallery stepped in, in Novitskova’s place, to convey to Bajagic that they’d reached a mutual decision with their artist that the work would remain titled as it was originally exhibited. Bajagic was annoyed, as this contradicted Novitskova’s previous offers to credit her, and once again had to press them by email to change the labeling of the work.
What’s transpired since then can at least be viewed as a partial positive: both the original Berlin Art Link review and Kraupa-Tuskany’s website have included Bajagic’s name in their respective descriptions of the piece. The title and subsequent materials description, as it now reads, is:
“Geometria MMXII, 2012 – digital image piece by Darja Bajagić (screenshot from Andrea Mantegna’s tarot card drawing Geometry XXIV, posted on Tumblr 2011), UV print on acacia wood, white varnish, TV screen holder.”
Now that Bajagic has received credit, at least that aspect of the situation can be considered resolved. In terms of how ethical Novitskova’s response to the situation was, it appears that she and the gallery have come around, albeit over a longer period of time than perhaps necessary, to the ethical solution. It’s never going to be clear whether she intentionally exhibited that image as her own without crediting Bajagic. But the fact is, many who champion free use of imagery would argue that even though Bajagic had also printed and exhibited the work before, the fact that Novitskova did it in a separate context excuses her action and even grants her an authorship over the screen grab. What’s difficult here is understanding whether Novitskova’s appropriation was critically intentional enough to constitute an actual recontextualization, thus giving her authorship over the work.
Such is the complication for an entire generation of artists utilizing the internet. We borrow freely from every aspect of contemporary life, repurposing everything from the Nike swoosh to bottles of shampoo, often to hilarious and thought-provoking ends. Like any cultural moment though, it’s incredibly difficult to objectively take inventory of the times while we’re actually experiencing it. I have no doubt that countless younger artists are directly appropriating from one another daily. It’s my hope that this is being done with a certain unspoken social contract in mind; everyone of the opinion that this is how things work. To make these appropriation-based practices into a sustainable form of production, it would benefit the artists to consider being candid with one another and their audiences about images they’re reworking from their peers.
It’s true that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but when it comes to one’s peer community, I’d wager most of them would readily grant that permission. Like I stated earlier, the worst that they can do is say no, at which point one could move forward in spite of objections, because then it’s “political.” Even so, simply making the effort to give due diligence in consideration of an image’s origin isn’t exactly a heavy responsibility. Using the original context as a starting point is part of why appropriation is often, for lack of a better term, fun. The transformation we apply to it requires that original context if our gesture is going to be read as funny, clever, critical, or insightful.
In the case of Bajagic vs Novitskova, I find in favor of Bajagic. There are no real repercussions here because, to be quite frank, we’re talking about art. However, having weighed all of the elements and having read their correspondences, Novtiskova’s defense that she didn’t know the image in question was a work Bajagic authored doesn’t hold up, in my opinion. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t know the image was Bajagic’s; it wouldn’t have mattered, whatever the source of the image had been. Novitskova’s infraction lies not in the specific origin point of the image, but in the fact that she did not perform due diligence to track down that origin.