Photographer Juergen Teller is under fire for his recent images of pop singer Rihanna created for Vogue magazine. Teller has been accused of appropriating the work of Mickalene Thomas, a staple in black female art.
Mixed-media artist Mickalene Thomas has been a prominent artist for nearly a decade, known for her elegantly stylized images of black women. Thomas pioneered a distinctive style, one that could be described as pop art with a strong emphasis on pattern and color. Due to comparisons of his recent Rihanna photoshoot for Vogue to Mickalene Thomas' unique style, photographer Teller has found himself in hot water, with critics accusing him of cultural appropriation. This episode is turning into a double whammy for Teller, a German artist, as he not only faces criticism for copying (or arguably stealing) Mickalene Thomas' style and works, but also for purportedly mimicking an artist iconic to black American culture, of which he is not a part.
Being familiar with Mickalene Thomas' work from art history classes, I decided to revisit her body of work as well as the current, controversial Vogue photoshoot. There are in fact many similarities between the two styles. The often evocative poses, patterns, and even facial expressions of the Vogue shoot all seem to be at least a nod to Mickalene Thomas' trademark style.
This case aside, where do we draw the line in qualifying cultural appropriation or theft of art? In such instances, intent seems important. Satire that’s informed and intelligent can qualify as legitimate, as does a thoughtful, artistic reference to another artist. But simply copying or crudely mimicking an artist’s distinctive work tends to be dishonorable among creatives. However, even intent is subject to interpretation.
These days, it isn't just mocking or even commenting on another culture that is dangerous. Imitating or borrowing from cultures can be viewed as patronizing and is generally off-limits. This means an homage, salute, or revamp of anything outside one's own culture is oftentimes problematic today. Earlier in the year, a Utah teenager wore a Chinese-styled dress to her prom and was subsequently dragged through Internet hell for it. The irony of the whole situation is that seemingly nobody from the culture had expressed outrage; in fact, the general consensus on the Chinese social media site Weibo was excitement and applause for an American appreciating their beloved culture.
On the other hand, counterarguments often seem to miss the point. "As if Mickalene Thomas never copied another artist!", one Twitter user exclaimed. I'd say this misses an important historical issue. After suffering through centuries of slavery followed by over a century of oppressive discrimination, black artists in various fields have been justifiably offended when their work has been stolen by white artists.
Aside from copyright laws, there aren't clear-cut rules when it comes to (loosely) borrowing from works of art, and even such laws are heavily subject to interpretation. Just last month, a court ruled in favor of a defendant company who blatantly stole copyrighted images from a photographer to use on promotional materials. The infringing party walked away scot free due to the ruling that the images were published on Google and therefore "fair use."
The idea of cultural appropriation is nothing new, and has been ingrained in the arts since the beginning of time. After studying the songs of great Delta blues musicians, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Paige reworked classic riffs into high-powered electric rock songs. Were these songs admiring tribute or uncredited theft? Early rock-pop music featured many other white musicians “covering” the records of talented black artists. These ranged from the laughably horrible (Pat Boone mangling Little Richard) to the many successfully re-arranged covers of R&B records that the Beatles performed with artistic integrity. How would one assess such vastly artistically different covers?
How exactly can it be determined when Teller (or any artist) has the right to borrow from another culture? If you're not part of the culture being appropriated, are you allowed to dictate who can express what? I'd appreciate having a thoughtful and civil discussion on this subject. You’re invited to leave your comments below.
Lead image by Juergen Teller via Vogue.