Since I apply a good bit of my effort here at Photocritic International to addressing issues relating to copyright and intellectual property, and am also — by my own assessment — the photo/art critic who has paid the closest attention to the life, work, and career of Bob Dylan, I consider myself qualified, perhaps uniquely, to comment on the brouhaha re Dylan’s current exhibition of paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and the accumulating evidence that most if not all of them are based on identifiable photographs not of Dylan’s making — none of them recent, but at least some of which remain under copyright protection. You’ll find a synopsis of the uproar in David Itzkoff’s September 26, 2011 New York Times report, “Dylan Paintings Draw Scrutiny.”
Some backstory: Dylan, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter of the second half of the 20th century, made pen and pencil sketches even at the outset of his career. Self-taught as a graphic artist, he began painting in the 1960s; examples of that early work appear on the cover of The Band’s album Music from Big Pink (1968) and Dylan’s own Self Portrait (1970). According to photographer Elliott Landy, who spent time with Dylan in Woodstock during that period, the then-reclusive musician also produced ceramics and stained-glass works. (See “Photographing Dylan,” the 1969 Paul Williams interview with Landy, in Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan, edited by John Bauldie, an anthology of material from the Dylan fanzine The Telegraph, published by Citadel Press in 1991.)
In the spring of 1974 Dylan began taking classes from the painter Norman Raeben (1901-78) at Raeben’s 11th-floor studio in Carnegie Hall on 57th Street in Manhattan. Curiosity engendered by comments from friends of Dylan’s first wife, Sara, led him to look up the Russian-born emigré. Raeben was the son of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, best known for creating the character Teyve in Fiddler on the Roof, a musical based on Aleichem’s stories of life in a Russian shtetl under Tsarist rule. He’d studied with Robert Henri, George Luks, and John French Sloan of the Ashcan School.
Dylan first started to mention his engagement with Raeben’s teaching in 1978, during interviews concerning his film Renaldo & Clara. At first Dylan didn’t identify him, perhaps to ensure the painter’s privacy. Eventually he named this mentor, indicating that he’d spent every day in Raeben’s studio for about two months in 1974, suggesting that Raeben had taught him “how to see.” He generously credited ideas he derived from his studies with Raeben for transforming his approach to songwriting, specifically indicating that the techniques he applied to the lyrics for one of his most highly regarded albums, Blood on the Tracks (1975), derived in large part from what he’d absorbed from Raeben and translated into his own medium.
From Bert Cartwright’s 1974 article, “The Mysterious Norman Raeben,” in the above-mentioned Wanted Man anthology, and from a 1977 interview with Dylan about Renaldo & Clara (then still a work in progress) conducted by Allen Ginsberg and published in the same volume, it seems clear that Raeben’s teachings ranged from thoughts on synchronicity and the coexistence of past, present, and future to an insistence on drawing as the primary craft of the visual artist and close, accurate observation of the material before one’s eyes as the fundamental method and obligation.
It would appear that his two months with Raeben constitute Dylan’s only formal instruction as a visual artist. However, he continued to draw and paint, using various media, from then on. None of his work received public exhibition until 2007, when a show of “The Drawn Blank Series” opened in Chemnitz, Germany. This was followed by a showing of “The Brazil Series” at the Statens Museum, Copenhagen, in 2010. The current exhibition of “The Asia Series” at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, which touched off the present controversy, marks Dylan’s debut as a visual artist in New York.
Though unschooled (aside from his encounter with Raeben), Dylan hardly qualifies as a naïf, outsider, or folk artist in his production of visual art. This man has spent time in many of the great art capitals of the world, rubbing elbows with noted visual artists in all media, visiting museums, galleries, and artists’ studios to encounter artworks “in the flesh,” studying other works in reproduction in books and magazines, owning and living with pieces by noted artists (most famously a Warhol “Elvis”), and otherwise acquainting himself with the field of ideas of contemporary art.
Moreover, by my lights, once you put your work up on the walls of galleries and museums and authorize the publication of monographs devoted to it, thus laying it open to critical response (and, not incidentally, making it available for purchase through said galleries and dedicated websites), you cease to be an “amateur artist,” as Mallika Rao labels Dylan unwisely in her September 28, 2011 Huffington Post report, “Bob Dylan’s Gagosian Paintings May Be Plagiarized From Photographs.” Which means that Dylan stands to be judged by professional standards in his role as a visual artist no less than he does in his role as a composer and performer, including the obligation of responsibility for awareness of and adherence to the laws and ethics relevant to matters of copyright and intellectual property.
I haven’t yet seen the paintings directly, just jpegs thereof at various websites. (I plan to visit the show this week, and will report thereon in a future post.) From the online evidence, however, I’m persuaded that many of the paintings are responses not to events Dylan himself observed but to assorted photographs, some of them a century old and some much newer than that, such as this 1998 Bruce Gilden image of two Japanese Yakuza.
Dylan employs lawyers to protect his own copyright for his own intellectual property. He has half a century’s professional experience with questions of influence, borrowing, imitation, derivation, appropriation, public domain, rights licensing, and other matters relating to IP. I consider it perfectly reasonable to hold him accountable, as a visual artist, to the same strictures his attorneys would hold anyone who produced and marketed an interpretation of his work.
The question with which I plan to grapple in this series of posts concerns the substance of those strictures. In what ways are graphic artists allowed to respond to photographs — and, conversely, disallowed from responding to them — both legally and ethically? And, by the same token, in what ways are photographers allowed to respond to works of graphic art — and, conversely, disallowed from responding to them — both legally and ethically?