Thursday, May 27, 2010

Roy Lichtenstein, The Thief: Appropriation or Theft? Part One

Below is the first part of a exhibit proposal I wrote up a little while back. It was all hypothetical and was never intended to actually be put on display. I did this for the purpose of research. I had interest in Roy Lichtenstein's work, not only because my work is heavily comic book influenced, but also because I appropriate quite a bit in my own work and I was curious to explore the issues that come with that process. What you read below is what would be in the broshure for the "exhibit." Enjoy:

Carson-Newman College’s Omega Gallery is happy to present Roy Lichtenstein, The Thief, an exhibit which displays the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein while asking the question, “Appropriation or theft?” This exhibit will also help provide an example of what can be considered “appropriation” in the art world. Viewing these works, many visitors may gain an understanding of how Lichtenstein developed his ideas and art. Roy Lichtenstein was an American artist born in 1923 whose work began to contain references to those of Picasso, Cézanne, Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt as early as the 1940’s. In 1961 he began to experiment with the use of cartoons and comic book characters as subject matter and also with the styles in which they were usually presented.

At that time, the issue many critics had with Lichtenstein’s works was whether or not they were works of fine art. Many only saw his paintings as larger versions of popular or banal illustrations. Very few people were concerned if his almost direct reproductions of comics and advertisements were to be considered stolen images. Most were more concerned with whether or not he was changing them enough to warrant their being referred to as art. However, eventually the majority of the art world accepted his pieces as true artistic achievements. It wasn’t until after he began to paint the works of the great masters in his new “comic book style” that viewers began to seriously question if Lichtenstein was merely a copycat. The strange fact is that these paintings were done in his new style and method and therefore, were quite different from the famous works which inspired them.

Even with the arguments that he blatantly stole his images and subjects from the works of other artists without giving them due recognition, many people still hold the belief that his works are simply the fruits of artistic appropriation. But what is appropriation? H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art defines appropriation in its glossary as, “The copying of images for purposes different from those for which they were originally intended, e.g. the reproduction of a famous work of art in a commercial advertisement…” According to this definition Roy Lichtenstein’s works that not only used the comic book style but also comic book images should be considered appropriation because they were intended as fine art not a mass produced illustration. But what about his paintings that reuse other pieces of fine art? They were never intended to be shown in the famous Lichtenstein fashion, but most of them were intended to be fine art. Granted, the above definition is a very basic and simple one and thus, any arguments that may be initiated by it are weak.

The reason it is hard to pin down Lichtenstein’s art as either stolen or appropriated is not only the confusion about appropriation’s definition, but also the concept of originality. Are the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein truly originally works of art which are appropriations from the works of others or are they copies and forgeries of concepts represented as masterpieces? When one compares the works of Lichtenstein to those of Matisse or of Van Gough, one can see an obvious distinction between the other artist’s paintings and Lichtenstein’s. His are works which reintroduce the old subjects and themes those artists addressed through a new approach and method (his industrial, comic book style.) His approach was quite original in these situations. When he presented the comic book and advertisement images in a larger, fine art manner, he was not only changing their intended purpose but also their compositions and elements to be more artistically developed.

Continued in Part Two. (Please ask for permission before reproducing)

EDIT: It's been quite sometime since I wrote this hypothetical exhibit proposal. Since then my own personal view about Lichtenstein's early "comic art" and all of his work in general has changed often in various ways. This piece I've written, however is still meant only to clarify some things about his work and move the reader to ask themselves what they think.


  1. what is the name of the second art work shown on this page?

  2. Sorry,I'm having trouble with blogger letting me comment under my name, but:
    Mountain Village. 1985. Oil and magna on canvas. 9x 13ft. In this painting he was influenced by and appropriated some of John Constable, Paul Cézanne, and his own works.

  3. "When he presented the comic book and advertisement images in a larger, fine art manner, he was not only changing their intended purpose but also their compositions and elements to be more artistically developed."

    How is drawing them poorly "more artistically developed"? In most cases the originals are stronger pieces of art (in or out of context) than Roy's copies...

    1. That's a good point. I think I understand your opinion, because its not far from my own. I may have not be clear in my writing. I think that that's the way he approached the pieces as he worked. He was trying to change things like composition into a more 'designer,' 'studied,' or 'fine art' way in panels that the original artists had limited time to work on. The works he appropriated were 'words' he was trying to use to say something with. Whether or not that makes them better or he produced them poorly is a different issue and some would argue is a matter of taste. I do agree with you that often my tastes tend to like the originals better as illustrations. In my limited knowledge on the subject though, it seems that isn't what Lichtenstein was concerned with.

    2. The period when Lichtenstein was 'swiping' comics' panels was a small one and he quickly moved on and did a variety of subject for many years more. This post (part one of two) is supposed to give you the information and let you form your own conclusions. And there is also always this side to consider as well:

    3. ' How is drawing them poorly "more artistically developed"? In most cases the originals are stronger pieces of art (in or out of context) than Roy's copies... '

      exactly. and thank you for writing with clarity and thought, unlike this blog's author

      "I may have not be clear in my writing"

    4. Sorry for any confusion. If I were to write this proposal again now (four or five years later) I'm sure I'd phrase things differently and in a clearer "devil's advocate" manner. But that's how it goes when you post something you did in school. I appreciate your criticism and opinions, but I assure you, I did give this a lot of thought when I wrote it.

    5. From part two, "If he appropriated or stole his images and ideas is still a matter which many who see his paintings have strong differing opinions about. We hope that while you visit this exhibition you will consider these questions and ideas while you gain a clearer understanding of what artistic appropriation is and perhaps gain an opinion of your own about whether Roy Lichtenstein was a thief or not."