RE-MIXING TRAGEDY VIA VANDALISM
THOUGHTS ON WORKS BY THE CHAPMAN BROTHERS
By: Jane Crayton
Are the Chapman Brothers guilty of vandalism? Or have they simply re-appropriated and remixed the media of artists such as Goya, Hitler and even corporate logos or primitive cultural artifacts and styles. At the turn of the 21st century, we were just starting to deal with the consequences of copyrights, ownership and intellectual property. I believe the Chapman Brothers work is along the lines of poetic terrorism, and guerrilla art, as a way to comment upon the cultural and social deterioration within our capitalistic Western societies.
They make political and social statements at every turn in their vibrant careers. We must examine the art of remixing and re-appropriating artworks in history, in order to fully understand the works of the Chapman Brothers. We must re-evaluate the idea of originality and copyright laws, to formulate an understanding of how Jake and Dinos expressed their idea of “collaboration” with Goya. We need to come to terms with our favoritism in defending one artist like Goya and not the other like Hitler. This hypocritical survey of art is another socio-political interest of the Chapman Brothers.
Re-mixed, and re-appropriated works by the Chapman Brothers serve as a political discourse, by constantly pushing our boundaries, questioning us at every level, and testing our moral limits through their art. They interact with the public in a much broader scope, one which extends beyond the gallery and into the psyche of our global culture.
Originality, copyrights, and Intellectual Property
Intellectual property stems from the concept that an idea, its self, can be property. This can also mean that an idea can be a physical form of property, which is owned and privatized. This is a very disturbing new concept developed in the 21st Century as a result of corporate financial profit strategies. This virtual ownership of ideas, theories and concepts has over materialized our world with laws and legal battles, all of which have exhausted significant energy from our global system.
The idea that culture can be property “intellectual property” is used to justify everything from attempts to force the Girl Scouts to pay royalties for singing songs around campfires to the infringement suit brought by the estate of Margaret Mitchell against the publishers of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone. Corporations like Celera Genomics have filed for patents for human genes, while the Recording Industry Association of America has sued music downloaders for copyright infringement, reaching out-of-court settlements for thousands of dollars with defendants as young as twelve. (32) - Jonathan Lethem
The concept of a copyright has only developed since the 20th Century. Yet, there are still dozens of versions of the Bible, Batman and most Marvel characters. There are now hundreds of generic brands, copies of popular designer labels. There are also artists like Weird Al Yankovich and Negativland, whom both work to recreate popular media, manipulating it into a counter culture statement.
Plagiarizing: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source intransitive verb : to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
I do not believe the work of the Chapman Brothers can be considered plagiarism, for they have never tried to hide the identity of the original artist, in fact it has been quite the opposite. The Chapman Brothers have instead announced and advertised the identity of the original artist, either to humiliate them, like in the case of their re-appropriated Hitler works; or possibly to honor them, like their ‘collaborative’ works with Goya.
Is there any Original Artwork left to be created? Aren’t most great ideas the result of reworked, old ones?
Originality is the quality or state of being original. It is the freshness of aspect, design, or style; the power of independent thought or constructive imagination. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
In my opinion the Chapman Brothers provide a great example of originality in the 21st Century remixed, re-appropriated media culture we all swim in. Almost everything has been done, and what seems to be popular in music, in video, in media, is remixing, mashing and collage. This alteration of meaning, the editing of the originally intended message into a new, ‘fresher’ version is the remixing or re-appropriation of any medium. It can happen in music, it can happen in the arts, as people cut-up, and collage images together. Is there a truly original idea? Can you really pinpoint something to that original thought or manifestation? And can that idea or though materialize into a tangible product or item in which we can place the concept of ownership?
“Kenneth Koch once said, ‘I’m a writer who likes to be influenced.’ It was a charming confession, and a rare one. For so many artists, the act of creativity is intended as a Napoleonic imposition of one’s uniqueness upon the universe – après moi le dèluge of copycats!” (Miller 37)
What are the issues with copyrights? The issue is the money, or the potential money involved in exclusive rights of a popular brand. For example take The Disney Corporation, they have the rights to millions of stories and characters, and they use those rights to exploit the designs of others for their profits.
Copyrights: the exclusive legal right, to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work) (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
The Chapman Brothers are very aware of these social stigmas, laws and hypocrisies. They strive to create art work that challenges our loyalties to corporate idolism in today’s culture.
To remix is to mix again, is to re-appropriate the material to change it and manipulate it in some form or another. To complete this process you must first break down the individual parts or pieces. In the case of music, artists like DJ Spooky cut-up media clips, and reorganize them digitally to create an altered meaning. Spooky explains, “Sampling is a new way of doing something that’s been with us for a long time: creating with found objects.” (Miller 25)
“Blues and jazz musicians have a long been enabled by a kind of ‘open source’ culture, where preexisting melodic fragments and larger musical frameworks are freely reworked.” (Miller 28)
I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his own work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Lethem continued to explain his interest in Burroughs’s writing. He continues, “by then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic.
The fact that the Chapman Brothers have decided to purchase and own these works, prior to defacing, or altering them is important. Because we have to honor the legalities of ownership, but should they have been accountable to preserving the liveliness of the original prints they purchase of Goya’s work? Should we hold our art collectors, curators and even artists responsible for preserving the original intention, subject, style, esthetic, or any other faucet of value to the art they own or produce?
This new art piece was created from the original ideas, or themes brought to us from the image. Just as the word Xerox will always mean to copy, even though it is the specific name and brand of copy machine. DJ Spooky and artist like William Burroughs use cut-ups to recreate meanings, from existing branded or conventionalized ideas.
The Chapman Brothers deface and re-appropriate art, by remixing ideas together in abstracted mediums. For example works from the Chapman Family Collection we can see how they tried to make these pieces appear as if they were from some primitive African culture. They tried to make these primitive cultures appear to worship the McDonald’s logo, and cultural sacrifice.
Chapman Family Collection 2002
They created sculptures which represented and imitated primitive art from native cultures, and then integrated the worlds most successful logos including McDonald’s imagery, into the designs.
Visitors to the gallery could be mistaken for thinking they had stepped back into ‘Africa – The Art of a continent’, for not only were the exhibits displayed in a comparable way (individually lit in an otherwise darkened room) but their appearance was also very similar. There were just over 30 tribal-looking sculptures carved from wood, mostly single figures and masks. Some had been painted and adorned with cowry shells and hemp ‘hair’. Their distressed and slightly dusty-looking surfaces added to the aura of antiquity, as did their mode of identification – instead of a title, each had a museum style number: CFC76311561, etc. (Schneider 8)
They recreated themes and sampled logos, from one of the world’s most intrusive companies, depicting McDonald’s cult like status, through mass manipulation of primitive and less fortunate cultures.
To Jake and Dinos Chapman it was ideal to move away from beauty. They are interested in integrating the realities and horrors of real life, just as Goya did. However, the realities and horrors of the 21st century for the Chapman Brothers included a critique on McDonald’s, social hierarchies, religions, and the corporate take-over of our culture.
“Such is the given state of mind of the individuated Romantic artist, liberated from formal emulation of the classics, freed from the hereditary regimens of Ancient Greek scholasticism…” (Chapman “the Marriage of Reason and Squalor”)
Aesthetics is subjective to the observer, and in the ‘eyes of the beholder’, subject to reference frame, time, and distance. Culture and status, education and general disposition are all parts of the greater aesthetic. In the eyes of pop-culture critics, and political electronic discourse, there is nothing left to shock us. We appear to have seen it all. Or have we?
According to Jonathan Jones of The Guardian the two brothers ‘vandalized’ Goya’s works.
Two years ago, the Chapman’s bought a complete set of what has become the most revered series of prints in existence, Goya's Disasters of War. It is a first-rate, mint condition set of 80 etchings printed from the artist's plates. In terms of print connoisseurship, in terms of art history, in any terms, this is a treasure - and they have vandalized it. (Jones)
Obviously it has become a great controversy as to weather the Chapman Brothers should have taken the liberty to manipulate such a significant piece of history. As a result of the exhibition, criticism such as Jones have surfaced, and have brought a great deal of publicity to these culture jammers.
The Chapman’s series is from a - historically very significant - edition published directly from Goya's plates in 1937, as a protest against fascist atrocities in the Spanish civil war; its frontispiece is a photograph of bomb damage to the Goya Foundation. Given how important the Disasters of War were to Picasso, Dali and the image of the civil war, this is clearly an important, evocative, emotionally raw thing, and they have scribbled all over it. (Jones)
“The ‘new’ work is called Insult to Injury. The exhibition in which it will be shown for the first time, at Modern Art Oxford, is called The Rape of Creativity,” explained Jones. It is clear however, that Jake and Dinos knew exactly what they were doing. They even named their work, “The Rape of Creativity,” which is extremely telling. They wanted to alter the images and make people mad, make them think; make them feel the tragedy in which Goya had tried to depict.
Today this violence doesn’t even phase us, as we see so much in the media and on television. Jake Chapman explains,
Despite moral purpose pursuing a reactive equivalence in violence, too much trauma can apparently be counterproductive. ‘Compassion fatigue’ sets in once images of atrocity fail their symbolic purpose and fuel the ambivalence they were employed to shatter–into–reality. (Chapman “the Marriage of Reason and Squalor”)
But for The Chapman Brothers, the defacing of Goya’s work, was really a collaboration, one which recreated the tragedy. It brought a crude sense of grotesque humor and pop culture to the forefront of our moral boundary. The new tragedy could be seen as the raping of these now ‘beautiful’ pieces of art work by Goya. And because the ‘original’ Goya works were banned for over 35 years from the public, they no longer represented the tragedies of war, in which Goya intended to depict. These prints were now seen as beautiful works of art, even though Goya never intended them to be seen as such. So what better way to continue the tragedy, than to deface and re-appropriate the images into a whole new kind of cultural tragedy by vandalizing and or collaborating with Goya.
This is a truly powerful and original idea on remixing. It required the ability to sample culture with a certain stealth, they had to be witty and creative. The Chapman Brothers found a way to shock and piss-off the world by altering Goya’s works, and they wanted to continue to push this dialog further than just Goya.
In May of 2008 the Chapman Brothers unveiled their latest work “Fucking Hell”. As a part of the series they included some reworked original painting of Aldolf Hitler. “The Chapman’s have adorned them with their own additions: butterflies and shooting stars and jolly rainbows,” according to Campbell-Johnston of the Times Online.
Hitler’s works were disregarded because he is a ‘horrific figure in history’
In an article by Arifa Akbar of The Independent, Arifa reviews their recent opening of a new series entitled Hell, which includes re-appropriated prints of Hitler, which they defaced by adding rainbows and starry nights. Akbar explained, “Dinos Chapman said the work, entitled If Hitler had been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be, was a rumination of what might have been had Hitler not been refused entry to Vienna's art school.”
Dinos Chapman continued explaining in Akbar’s article;
He tried to get into art school with these. They are bland and show no presentiment of the genocide to come. They represent the husk of a man who would be filled up with bitterness and hatred. They are identical to thousands of drawings in junk shops. All they demonstrate is that they are a terrible work of art, not that the person behind them will become a tyrant. (Akbar)
“This is not the first time the brothers have defaced artwork. They offended some Spanish critics when they reworked 80 etchings by Goya, Disasters of War, adding funny faces and clowns heads.” Arifa Akbar of The Independent. It is apparent that this is now a trend in the work of the Chapman Brothers to create a dialog about the work its self, to see if it is valid, in exploiting its medium, be it sampling, re-appropriation or re-mixing culture.
The Chapman Brothers have defaced more than just primitive art. They place it in juxtaposition with corporate logos, symbolizing the spread of capitalism throughout the world, and its systematic destruction of primitive culture. The Chapman Brothers also took some of the worlds most beautiful etchings by Goya and systematically defaced them, creating a new story of tragedy. They feel they “collaborated” with Goya to make the works more relevant to today’s audience. The Chapman Brothers take poetic terrorism to a different level within art. They push the boundaries of what is accepted, into what can be barely tolerated. They have not plagiarized, or infringed any copyrights, they have not stolen or really even damaged any works. Today, we have to consider the culture in which Jake and Dinos Chapman live and work, and what is accepted in today’s society is different than 100 years ago. Today we see re-mixing, and re-appropriation of ideas and themes daily has become a major part of their art theory and critical awareness. The Chapman Brothers have decisively constructed a political statement about art and society through their works. Jake and Dinos Chapman are ingenious catalyst of a new style of appropriation, re-mixing and sampling in the 21st Century.
Akbar, Arifa. “The art of Adolf Hitler (with a little help from the Chapman brothers)” Independent News and Media Publication: The Independent Art. 2008. 1Dec. 2008.
Chapman, Jake and Dinos. Insult to Injury: the Marriage of Reason and Squalor. Steidl, 2004.
"copyright." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 Dec. 2008. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/copyright
Jones, Jonathan. “Look what we did.” 2003. The Guardian. 1 Dec. 2008.
Miller, Paul D. Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
"originality." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 Dec. 2008.
"plagiarism." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 Dec. 2008.
Schneider, Eckhard. Jake and Dinos Chapman. New York, Distributed Art Publishers, 2005.