Yesterday, the White House announced that it was removing Alma Thomas’ plagiaristic piece
“Watusi (Hard Edge)” from its walls. The White House announced that the painting was moved “because it didn’t fit the space right.” The Washington Post
pointed out that posters at FreeRepublic.com had examined the similarity between “Watusi (Hard Edge)” and Henri Matisse’s “The Snail” (1953), ignoring the fact that Big Hollywood actually broke the story. The Washington Post
covered for the White House, explaining, “Stephens’s explanation makes sense because it is inconceivable that the White House’s art experts would imagine Thomas’s painting was fraudulent or a copy … Elaborations on earlier artists’ work, even full appropriation, have been common practice in art for hundreds of years.”
Andrew Breitbart immediately emailed the author of the piece, Blake Gopnik, to point out that Big Hollywood had not been properly attributed on criticism of the piece. Here’s Andrew’s email:
“Ben Shapiro at Big Hollywood broke this story with a legitimate report. Not blog opinion. To credit Free Republic or conservative opinion sites is either bad journalism or... bad journalism. Even at Free Republic they cite Shapiro and Big Hollywood. The story was cited properly all over the Internet, why the Washington Post breach? We have been at the forefront of reporting on what the MSM won't regarding this admin. We had the ACORN story, the NEA propaganda conference call. All hard news stories. And so is this. Shapiro is a Harvard law grad. He is hardly worthy of this kind of brush off. We'd like to see a correction as soon as possible.”
And here is Gopnik’s response:
I'm sorry, Andrew, but there WAS NO STORY OR SCANDAL HERE, at all, until the White House (seemed to have been) forced to withdraw the painting by conservative Web sites. We were well aware of the earlier comments regarding "Watusi," but actively chose not to cover them in any way, because they were so ill-founded. Any writer with any real expertise in art would have known that Thomas's riff on Matisse was always meant to be obviously legible as such, and was read as such from the beginning -- there was never any fakery or plagiarism involved. Accusing Thomas of "plagiarism" here is precisely like accusing the Beatles of "plagiarism" for having recorded "Roll Over Beethoven" -- after making the "discovery", in 2009, that there was this other guy named Chuck Berry who'd written a song that sounded almost the same.
Chief Art Critic
The Washington Post
I will freely admit that I am no expert art critic. I am, however, a lawyer. And I can read. These constitute two skill sets that apparently elude Mr. Gopnik. Gopnik admits that the White House was “forced to withdraw the painting by conservative Web sites,” which is more than he did in his Washington Post
piece. But at the same time, he says that everyone knows that Thomas’ piece is a “riff on Matisse.” Everyone, it seems, except the New York Times
, which originally reported the Obama White House Art. In the pages of the Times
, Holland Cotter, the Times
’ art critic, described Thomas’ painting as “an out-and-out steal of a Matisse
collage. Thomas just shifts the pieces around, cools the colors down, and adds a title that refers to a Chubby Checker song.” I guess Cotter is as uneducated as I am. (The New York Times
, by the way, was just as bad as the Washington Post
– in their coverage of the White House takedown, they selectively edited out Cotter’s line about “Watusi (Hard Edge)” as an “out-and-out steal of a Matisse collage” while keeping his description about Chubby Checker.)
Whatever Gopnik knows about art, his claims about the nature of artistic plagiarism demonstrate total and utter ignorance of basic copyright law. “Accusing Thomas of ‘plagiarism’ here is precisely like accusing the Beatles of ‘plagiarism’ for having recorded ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ -- after making the ‘discovery,’ in 2009, that there was this other guy named Chuck Berry who'd written a song that sounded almost the same,” Gopnik patronizingly remarks in his email. Except that the Beatles, presumably, complied with U.S. copyright law, which requires that re-recordings of songs acquire what is termed a “mechanical license” -- a process which calls for the re-recording artist to both notify the original artist of the song and to pay a royalty for using it. Alma hasn’t paid a dime to the Matisse estate to my knowledge. So it ain’t quite
the same thing, there, Blake.
As far as visual art, slight modification won’t obviate copyright infringement claims. Just ask Shepard Fairey, the idiot artist who created the Obama Hope poster by ripping off an Associated Press photograph. AP sued Fairey under the Copyright Act, explaining that “the Infringing Works copy all the distinctive and unequivocally recognizable elements of the Obama Photo in their entire detail, retaining the heart and essence of The AP’s photo, including but not limited to its patriotic theme … the striking similarity between The AP’s copyright image … of President Obama and the poster that Fairey made based on that image … is patently obvious.”
There were strong legal grounds for the AP’s suit against Fairey – grounds which would be similarly applicable to Matisse’s work. Under 17 U.S.C. 106, for example, the owner of copyright in a work as the exclusive right to “prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.” Under 17 U.S.C. 501, “Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner … is an infringer of the copyright.” So Gopnik’s supposed defense of plagiarism in art in the Washington Post
piece as “common practice in art for hundreds of years” doesn’t make it okay.
The story of the Obama White House and “Watusi (Hard Edge)” was originally a story about the White House’s incompetent vetting process and inane taste in art. Now it has become something more: the latest and most patently obvious attempt by the mainstream media to shield a president from any criticism, however minute – and their willingness even to endorse artistic plagiarism to do it.