Creativity in the Corporate Age

When art imitates life a little too closely

Albert Einstein once said the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

This statement may cause a revelation among creative types struggling to produce that ever-elusive original work. In truth, originality doesn't exist, for creation is merely a recombination of pre-existing elements.

"Illegal Art," on display at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, showcases the works of artists who borrow ubiquitous images from contemporary consumer culture — Disney characters, celebrity images, corporate logos — and use them as fodder for artistic expression.

Michael Hernandez de Luna's Viagra
Michael Hernandez de Luna's Viagra

The concept of copyright is a fairly new one, introduced to Western society in the early Eighteenth Century. In 1597, William Shakespeare didn't fret about reworking Arthur Brooke's narrative poem The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet for his iambic pentameter masterwork Romeo and Juliet. Heck, even God plagiarizes; the Book of Genesis contains passages seemingly lifted straight from the pages of the ancient Sumerians' Epic of Gilgamesh.

Today's artists, however, must adhere to the extensive laws governing intellectual property. Many find themselves in court, accused of stealing imagery, music, and words from works owned by a corporation.

Organized by the Brooklyn-based Stay Free! magazine in 2002, "Illegal Art" features a sampling of objects that occupy the gray area between legal and illegal, at least as far as U.S. copyright laws are concerned. The exhibit is more of a sociological examination than a solid ensemble of stunning artwork. Even so, the show's conceptual premise provokes discussion of an interesting and relevant topic.

Amid trite photos of Barbie dolls in blenders, a silly video of a dog humping a stuffed animal, and an unsuccessful consumer intervention work involving Wal-Mart and Mussolini, one finds enough high-quality pieces to compensate for the twenty-minute drive to Hollywood.

Diana Thorneycroft's Failed Relationships series consists of graphite drawings depicting distressed Disney characters: Mickey strangling Winnie the Pooh, and Mickey — or Mike, as a suicide note reads — contemplating self-destruction. The juxtaposition of childlike and psychotic imagery aided by the delicacy of Thorneycroft's pencil strokes has an unnerving effect.

Laura Splan's sculpture Prozac is a reproduction of the mood-modifying medication in form and color, but enlarged to two feet in length and made from shaggy carpet. The surrealist nature of the piece reflects the drug's mind-altering capability and, perhaps, its invasion on American society. Michael Hernandez de Luna likewise riffs on prescription drugs in two of his works, realistic postage stamp designs featuring Prozac and Viagra.

Heidi Cody's Subvert installation frankly reveals the extent to which corporate logos are embedded within our subconscious. In the piece, Cody creates the word subvert from her light-box alphabet of letters lifted from everyday consumer products. It's surprising how easily one recognizes the letters, immediately connecting the image to its product.

The oldest piece in the show, Wally Wood's 1967 Disneyland Memorial Orgy, is a black-and-white cartoon poster of Disney characters in compromising positions — a real treat. One of the original Mad magazine illustrators, Wood first published the poster in the Realist, an underground newsletter.

And the award for Most Enlightening Use of Illegal Material goes to Brian Springer for Spin. Composed of 100 percent illegally obtained satellite feeds, Spin is a collage of off-air footage that depicts politicians, news anchors, and TV talk show hosts, including Larry King. The video pulls the curtain on political wheeling and dealing and the prefabricated nature of the news media.

As with a number of videos on display in "Illegal Art" — for instance, Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Greg Hittelman's documentary Willful InfringementSpin is too long to be viewed in a gallery setting — unless you'd like to spend 60 minutes on just one piece in the show.

It's a better idea to watch a few minutes of each film and then purchase a DVD copy of the more interesting films from the "Illegal Art" Website, www.illegal-art.org.

Although a few of the show's featured artworks have eluded lawyers, many have been the focal point of heated court cases.

Displayed in a central glass case are various items that have been the subjects of suits for copyright infringement, including the album cover art for the band Negativland's 1991 single "U2," a song based on U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"; Consumer Whore, a 1999 comic by Kieron Dwyer that contains a parody of the Starbucks logo; and a sweet collection of the Topps Company's Garbage Pail Kids cards from the mid-Eighties.

Most recently, Tom Forsythe, creator of the Food Chain Barbie photographs, won a lawsuit filed by Mattel, the makers of Barbie. In 2004, the U.S. District Court of Central California called Mattel's case "objectively unreasonable" and "frivolous," ruling Mattel to pay Forsythe more than $1.8 million to cover court expenses.

Forsythe won his case because of the fair use clause in copyright law. Based on the belief the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism, fair use is equivalent to an artist's pepper spray against corporate hounds.

Nevertheless the editors at Stay Free! — along with prominent scholars such as Stanford University professor Lawrence Lessig — believe current copyright laws infringe on the creative process and First Amendment rights.

It's true that if the same laws had been in effect years ago, whole genres of art may never have existed, Pop Art for one. Andy Warhol produced sculptures of Brillo boxes and lithographs of Campbell's soup cans — en masse to boot.

In a society that promotes the belief that creativity is tantamount to originality, it's refreshing to see a show like "Illegal Art" remind us of the truth.

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