Roy Lichtenstein’s Plagiarism

Example of a Roy Lichtenstein image next to its original source and labelled with David Barsalou's text.

Plagiarize! Plagiarize! Let no-one else's work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.....

Tom Lehrer's comical lyrics from the 1950's were pierced with the perceptive truth that nothing comes from nothing. If great artists (or in his example, mathematicians) did not scour other works for the bits that they could use, their own work would probably not deserve the descriptor, "original". It's an odd truth that everyone who is in the business of doing something meaningfully original knows. It's also why the verse ends with some more prosaic advice: "…but be sure always to call it 'Research'."

David Barsalou, a comic book enthusiast, has spent three decades tracking down Roy Lichtenstein's source imagery in order to belittle his art and his reputation. In his opinion, Lichtenstein was a plagiarist without a redeeming trait. I can understand why he might think so and I am sure that he is not alone. I, too, if I were a comic-book lover, might feel a little miffed that comic-strip illustrators earned peanuts while the art-world hero who just copied their source imagery earned millions. Barsalou writes:

"There are hardcore art world people who think he [Lichtenstein] was the greatest thing and that these guys weren't real artists. If these guys were so bad, why was Lichtenstein copying them? And he really got lazy, by 1963-64 he was taking the image, tracing it, sticking it in a projector and painting it. And when that painting sells for millions of dollars, it just really bothers me that nothing is given to the original artists. There's got to be some way to right this wrong. A lot of these guys are old, and who knows how much longer they have to live."1

Jack Cowart, Executive Director of the Lichtenstein Foundation, once responded: "Barsalou is boring to us. Roy's work was a wonderment of the graphic formulae and the codification of sentiment that had been worked out by others. Barsalou's thesis notwithstanding, the panels were changed in scale, color, treatment, and in their implications. There is no exact copy."2

The trouble is that Barsalou, like Cowart and his other critics, have their terms and categories mixed up. Barsalou's misunderstanding is forgivable; those from the art world less so. Here's why. Comic-book illustrators are not artists. Their image depicts a scene (even though fictional) of something taking place in the outside world. Their style is rigorously conventional and legible by all. It copies a story. A Sunday painter, setting up an easel on the bend of a river, and copying the scene in oil paints is an illustrator too because all she has done is copy reality. Their style often differs from that of the comic-book illustrator - so does the amount of drama in their work  - but not the thought process.

Artists like Michelangelo or Lichtenstein, on the other hand, despite being on totally different levels as artists are true philosophers with a surprisingly similar understanding of the cosmos and man's place in it. They clearly believed with Socrates that an unexamined life is not worth living. So they turned away from the outside world, which we can only study using the very limited capacities of our senses, towards their own inner world which wise people in many different cultures, including prophets, poets and painters to name a few, have examined for millennia. They then embed their work with age-old wisdom for the benefit of future viewers.

Unfortunately - and this is why I think Barsalou should be excused - most in the art world are as unaware of this as Barsalou himself. They seem to have little idea that such wisdom is embodied in the art they so respect. Indeed its presence should almost be the very definition of ART. Cowart's explanation of the perceived difference between the work of the artist and of the illustrators is merely a comment on the work's physical characteristics and an unexplained mention of their implications. If they were the only differences, Cowart would not have proved his point and Barsalou would be correct.

What I believe Lichtenstein actually did - as I have begun to show in the six examples already published - was search contemporary comic-strips for illustrations that he could change in seemingly small ways to embed elements of his (and art's and mankind's) core philosophy. In this way he hoped to help that very select group of viewers open to such knowledge to gain its benefits. (All artists aware that every painter paints himself are clearly part of that group.) To many the differences between Roy Lichtenstein's paintings and his printed sources can seem negligible even if, to his intended viewer, those same differences can be life-changing.

1. Brian Childs, "Deconstructing Lichtenstein: Source Comics Revealed and Credited" online at: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/02/02/deconstructing-lichtenstein-source-comics-revealed-and-credited/

2. "Deconstructing Lichtenstein" posted online at: http://www.lifelounge.com.au/art-and-design/news/deconstructing-lichtenstein.aspx

Reader Comments

Thanks for the review… Much appreciated.
David Barsalou MFA

David Barsalou
22 Feb 2013

Not at all. Thank you for the invaluable archive of Lichtenstein sources you’ve developed. Good job.

Simon

Simon Abrahams
23 Feb 2013

Lichtenstein was OBVIOUSLY a plagiarist and no amount of pseudo-intellectual babble justification excuses it.

Clark Gwent
25 Aug 2015

There’s a difference between plagiarizing and transforming. All art transforms; plagiarism does not.

Simon
25 Aug 2015

How exactly is illustration different from art? You say “Comic-book illustrators are not artists. Their image depicts a scene (even though fictional) of something taking place in the outside world.” Does that mean photography and cinema don’t count either?

“Their style is rigorously conventional and legible by all. It copies a story.” What does that say about the Renaissance painters whose main or only subjects were biblical scenes? I guess that puts them below this lofty title of Artist as well. Sucks to be you, Caravaggio!

The article says that Lichtenstein’s goal was to “search contemporary comic-strips for illustrations that he could change in seemingly small ways to embed elements of his (and art’s and mankind’s) core philosophy.” If Lichtenstein says anything about the philosophy of art and mankind, it must be that we’re a pack of remorseless thieves with no scruples to speak of because it sure says it about him.

Nick
01 Sep 2015

My answer to your question which is very apt is that true art, unlike illustration, is never a reproduction of the exterior world or of a story but an image inside the artist’s own mind, often an imaginative depiction of the work’s own creation. At first sight, it does not look that way (for instance, Lichtenstein appears to just copy a comic book) but on long contemplation one begins to see intentional errors and repetitive forms in the apparent reproduction. Those lead to a composition of entirely different meaning, almost always poetic and usually united with that of other artists’. There is a wisdom shared by hundreds of great minds from different traditions (Plato, Christ, Buddha, Dante, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Einstein etc etc) that expresses what the wise understand about our existence. Other people then twist their teaching for their own ends. Christ’s actual words, for example, are not what religions teach. They are twisted to support the Church which did not even exist when Christ lived. If you look at how EPPH explains some of Rembrandt’s biblical scenes or Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel you’ll see what I mean. In illustration there is no such wisdom. I hope that helps.

Simon
01 Sep 2015

“...true art, unlike illustration, is never a reproduction of the exterior world.”

If a piece of comic book art exists in the “exterior world”, and is reproduced (by, say, Lichtenstein), then it peforce and according to your own definition, cannot be true art.  Much less original.  When doing variations, no matter how extensive, composers always at least acknowledge the original composer.

Semantics.  Take a novel and change 2% of the words, try to sell it, and see how far you get with your defense.  Take a movie and reproduce it shot for shot except for 2% and see how successful you are defending it in court from the studio that made the original.  Painting a sculpture blue does not make it original.  Changing two lyrics in a song does not make it original. 

Blatant theft is blatant theft, which only emphasizes the lack of talent on the part of the thief.

Alan Dean Foster
07 Mar 2016

Roy’s work away from comic strips is a yawn. He hit a motherlode when he found those images - great perception - but Roys work away from comic strips is a yawn….

Terry Shrehane
08 Feb 2017

The ‘illustrators’ are the real artists. Period. Selling plagiarized copies of someone else’s work for millions of dollars while showcased in all the most prestigious museums does not validate Lichtenstein as an artist. It quite clearly shows him to be a total hack. Why couldn’t he make create his own original scenes? It’s because he lacked genuine imagination. His work steals from the raw emotions the original works invoke. How arrogant to elevate Lichtenstein above a true honest hardworking artist. True value is not measured in money. It’s measured by genuineness. Something Lichtenstein never had.

Austen
28 Oct 2017

Lichtenstein seems to generate raw emotions too, in those that dislike him! He’s not a great artist, I grant you, and I fully understand your point-of-view. I, too, felt like that for a very long time. However, according to the definition of art that EPPH uses, art must convey philosophy, the perennial wisdom of the ages. Lichtenstein’s work does that if you know how to look at it; the illustrations he uses as source material don’t. Illustrators tell stories very well but they are not philosophers. Besides, reason and logic are the hallmarks of philosophy, of Lichtenstein’s work and of art in general, not emotions.

Simon
28 Oct 2017

I just realized it might help if I explained the image above and why they are totally different. The original needs no or little explanation. In Roy’s version, the flames create the caricatural illusion of his own face in profile, looking to the left, with his very long and pointed nose. His “eye” is a black mark just below the right-hand upright of the ‘M’. Once you know that, you realize that the explosion is taking place inside his own “head”. Those flames and the burning plane are quite different to the original. The plane also forms a “face”. It now has a large engine-opening as a screaming mouth with one cyclopean eye (the cockpit), the inner eye of imagination, just above it. Although it seems like disaster, it is in the inverted terms of perennial philosophy and art what spiritual people most aspire to, a fusion (through this cataclysm of fire) with the universe and all that’s in it.

The other plane, cropped at the edge, is the like the artist himself in the studio and as we are in everyday life: full of ego. That’s why the engine grill is formed into a series of four ‘L’s for Lichtenstein which, by the way, means “light stone” or “light in stone” in German. Our artist, Light Stone, hurls his stones of light towards the incoming aircraft which, in fact, represents both the “picture” he is creating and the spiritual state he would like to transform himself into. The disintegrating enemy is himself, becoming at one with the universe. Most of us live in darkness, consumed by our daily struggles and physical desires. To help overcome them, we should join the artist in imagining another possibility, a enlightened spiritual state of mind in which there is no artist and painting, no subject and object, no ‘you’ and ‘me’ because love binds us all. To do that, we must destroy the ego. After all, the two planes though on opposite sides look alike. They are really the same. The artist as one “plane” paints himself as another, a metaphor which probably also includes a pun on the meaning of “plane”. We need to move to the higher one.

Simon
28 Oct 2017

If you think Russ Heath’s work, just to give one example, was some kind of inartistic slavish copy of reality you are capable of believing anything. This is really about class snobbery - Lichtenstein is “one of us” and can be excused theft; those he stole from deserve no redress, no recognition because they are not part of your inbred little world. That’s all.

John Sabotta
25 Aug 2018

Lichtenstein’s work is fantastic, but he is still a plagiarist. I appreciate that it exists, however any observer can see that it was traced or copied from the original comic art. (yes, with alterations). “His” art is wonderful, but these sorts of compositions could have been created from scratch, or drawn using models.

Alex J
15 Jan 2019

Also woth noting, the “Decronstructing Roy Lichtenstein” Flickr is ruined by some of the ugliest watermarks imaginable appearing on every single image.

Alex J
15 Jan 2019

“Comic-book illustrators are NOT artists”

Bullshit. You just lost your entire argument with that one sentence. Pretentious fuck. Comics are art and Lichtenstein was an art thief, plain and simple.

anonymous
11 Apr 2019

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