In February of 2007, Harper’s Magazine ran an article that described the conversation about a painting and the photograph that inspired that painting. Both Joy Garnett, the painter and Susan Meiselas, the photographer offered their views on their respective works and the looming lawsuit that never ensued. Meiselas was concerned about the context of the original photo which was removed in the painting. Perhaps Meiselas can be set at ease with the knowledge that context is never more than a few clicks or finger taps away.
A few things have changed since this article was written. We live in a world with more information available at our fingertips than ever. A decontextualized image can now be recontextualized with the aid of machine learning, in this case Google’s image search. I created a jpeg from a screen grab of a scan from a magazine that was a film photograph of the original painting—a series of transitions and transformations that stripped it of all metadata and hidden information. Despite that, Google still “knew” it was Joy Garnett’s Molotov Man and provided the appropriate phrase in the search field. As a mind-bending side note, the accessibility of the context on Wikipedia is a result of the conversation that was had about the painting’s lack of context.
Is this enough to assuage Meiselas’s concern? We all now know Pablo ‘Bareta’ Arauz’s name. And we also now know more of the history about the Nicaraguan Revolution. Neither of these outcomes would be possible without Garnett’s painting. Often these works enter into a kind of symbiotic relationship.
Growing up, I was known as someone who remembered “a lot of useless facts.” This characteristic of me has become less and less noteworthy as information has become more and more ubiquitous. I used to impress friends with my knowledge of cinematic trivia by surprising them with director names or previous titles with a particular actor. One fact that often surprised people was that Star Wars was in fact a remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. This would sometimes result in a more primitive version of the conversation about originality and copy-culture and whether this somehow diminished the value of George Lucas’s movie. Today, most people who enjoy Star Wars seem to know this fact already and have decided that it is interesting or they do not care.
Does this context improve the movie? If anything it makes people who are unfamiliar with Kurosawa at least curious to go watch more of his work. This has created value. It breaths new life into old work and extends it relevance.
Another great example of a work that mercilessly cribs and copies ad nauseam is Futurama. Each episode is brimming with references to The Twilight Zone, Star Trek:TOS, Back to the Future, etc., etc. This is a different approach to elevating that which has come before. It provides a deeper level of entertainment for those who are more steeped in nerd culture. These easter eggs encourage viewers to study up in order to capture the full value of each episode. That joke you didn’t get was actually about tribbles, and you need to watch ST:TOS S02E15 to understand it. This approach allows the value of a cultural artifact to radiate outward and include those influences as part of its offerings. No need to cite your works—the internet can handle that for you.
I suppose the outcome of this conversation is that we are freer express ourselves today than anyone was in the past. Both the means of our expression are more accessible and the cultural history we can draw from is more accessible. A happy bi-product of that accessibility is that finding our sources will also be much easier. We as creators need to understand that, and in understanding it, we can exploit it in ways that enrich our work. Its not cool or interesting to plagiarize or copy someone else’s work to gain recognition for ourselves, and now it’s also much more difficult. The internet is watching! Instead we can consider ways to show our process like in a math problem and create a journey that led us to where we are now and whatever it is we are creating.