A wasted opportunity with the Charman Prize

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  • Appropriation at play: Chris Dawson’s oil painting Three Queens bears an uncanny compositional similarity to Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players (Photograph supplied)

    Appropriation at play: Chris Dawson’s oil painting Three Queens bears an uncanny compositional similarity to Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players (Photograph supplied)

In the end, Scott Stallard’s piece, Wasted Time, really was the unintended highlight of the 2017 Charman Prize at Masterworks.

Its withdrawal from the show amid accusations of plagiarism and rule breaking is more than problematic. In the process, Masterworks cut a swath through its relevance as an art institution, losing the opportunity to illuminate those aspects of art that are contentious and controversial.

Greater than the sensational event of the piece’s removal is the larger issue of appropriation in art. How do we distinguish appropriation from plagiarism?

Asked to describe art, Andy Warhol famously replied it’s “what you can get away with”. Pablo Picasso said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Herein lies the difficulty with the Charman Prize and its glaring flaws as a juried show with its prescribed rules. We don’t need to look very far to find its inherent contradictions. Before we move on, let’s agree that appropriation, the bane of the art world, has been in play for decades. Dada artist Marcel Duchamp sought to challenge the art establishment with his “ready-mades” in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, Warhol rode several controversies by using unauthorised images. In one episode, Warhol eventually paid court-ordered royalties to photographer Patricia Caulfield for using her image without permission. Jeff Koons is notorious for passing off his renderings as highly stylised appropriations of art.

On the other hand, there should be no tolerance for plagiarism: where another artist’s idea, expression or work is represented as one’s own. To accuse Scott Stallard of plagiarism in this context is reckless and approaches the insidious. The artistic implication is that Stallard stole an original idea and sought to deceive the Charman judges and, by extension, Masterworks with a wilful misrepresentation. This assessment is based solely on statements in The Royal Gazette article “Art winner returns $2,000 prize” (October 25, 2017).

It is evident that Night Shift became Wasted Time via a transformation and with the knowledge of the original artist. How far apart is appropriation from plagiarism? I would suggest that it is a matter of authorisation and permission, which appears to be the case here. Bob Dylan wrote and recorded All Along the Watchtower in 1967. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix famously released his version of the song in 1968. Dylan is reported to have said “I don’t know if anyone has done my songs better” when he heard Hendrix’s rendition.

Sampling today in music gave birth to a whole cultural movement: hip-hop. The significance of appropriation in music is so pervasive that the authenticity of many artists is questioned. This in no way promotes art plagiarism or even fraud, which is advanced for the sole purpose of deception and the rewards that are garnered because of this deception.

In the following example, the issue of appropriation versus plagiarism becomes thorny and grey. The Charman Prize winner in 2015 was Chris Dawson with his oil painting, Three Queens. In his artist’s statement, Dawson said: “ ... I would like to thank my grandmother, great-aunts and uncle for being the foundation of this concept.”

Dawson’s painting bears an amazing and uncanny, compositional similarity to Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, which was painted in 1892. Cezanne’s painting features three men playing cards at a table, with the fourth standing over them as an observer. Change the context of time and the gender of the card players, one could argue successfully that appropriation was in play. And if this was the case, two of the four rules that governed the 2015 Charman Prize have not been adhered to or have been compromised at best. Does this diminish the beautiful qualities of this painting? Side by side, can Dawson be accused of plagiarising Cezanne? What do we do if the Charman Prize judges missed an obvious reference to the great French impressionist painter?

Now let’s fast forward to 2017 and Richard Edson Sutton’s painting, La Pieta. In title and composition, it is a painting inspired by Michelangelo’s formidable 1499 sculpture — and this is acknowledged by the artist. This painting also possesses similar qualities of light and perspective that are present in Dawson’s Three Queens. Can we now suggest that Sutton used the same features of appropriation to enhance his possibilities with the judges?

There are too many artists who have used appropriation to launch celebrated and lucrative careers. Some artists are culpable of simply leveraging the value of the original art without recontextualising — arguably a form of theft. At its best, appropriation is used satirically or deferentially as a means of creative alchemy.

To remove Scott Stallard’s Wasted Time is unfortunate on too many fronts to fully explore here, and this action serves only to diminish the Charman Prize. Sadly, Masterworks has lost a great deal of its lustre as one of Bermuda’s premier art institutions with its pedestrian and prosaic decision.

Wayne A. Dill is an art enthusiast and has reviewed music and art for Bermudian publications, including The Royal Gazette

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Published Nov 1, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 1, 2017 at 6:50 am)

A wasted opportunity with the Charman Prize

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