Monday, January 26, 2009

An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts

Many will say (often in a testy voice) that the arts deserve a cabinet-level presence because they are just as important to the country as the Defense Department. While that's something of an apples and oranges comparison, the deeper problem is that it assumes that the country's defense and its arts can be furthered via the same sort of bureaucratic means. But while our nation's defense would collapse in the absence of the centralized power of our Defense Department, having a Department of Culture -- or even a "Cultural Czar," to use that awful label we've apparently become so fond of -- would be neither an effective nor necessary way to guarantee the health of cultural expression in America.
Read David Smith in the WSJ here.

Get Mannie Garcia's Photo at the NPG

By now the story on the fact that DC photographer Mannie Garcia was the uncredited original source for Shepard Fairey's iconic portrait of President Obama has been all over the internets (although curiously out of the dead tree mainstream press as far as I can detect).

Shepard Fairey's Obama at the NPG by Joe Tresh

The above photo by Joe Tresh captures the unveiling and installation of the Obama portrait by Shepard Fairey at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, January 17, 2009. Street artist Fairey is the gentleman in the sharkskin grey suit.

A while back I asked the NPG for clarification on its acquisition policy. It is my understanding that contemporary portraits could only be considered for acquisition if the portrait was done by the artist from the actual living subject. At least that's what I was told by an NPG curator a few years ago when I sold a portrait to the NPG. My recent question to the NPG has been elevated to the curator and I am waiting for a response. The NPG response should be an easy one. They can either say:

(a) Mr. Campello, you are right in that it is the policy of the NPG to acquire contemporary portraits only when the portrait has been done directly from the subject. However, because of the historical importance of this piece, the NPG made an exception to this policy as it would with any important contemporary portraits.

(b) Mr. Campello, you are incorrect when you ask if it is the policy of the National Portrait Gallery to only acquire those contemporary portraits which are done directly from the subject.

In any event, since the Fairey piece is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, through the generous donation of the DC area's ubercollectors Heather and Tony Podesta, I think that it is only fair that Garcia's photograph also hang next to Fairey's piece and that the wall text reflect the process via which the ubiquitous Fairey work was created.

After all, the piece is sort of a 21st century collaboration, right? And I bet that I can even help to get one an original photo for the NPG.

And this has nothing to do with any opinions on the issue of Fairey's use of Garcia's photograph. Artists have been "sampling" other artists' works and other people's images for generations (including me) and technically what the brilliant Fairley did is probably legal, as Richard Lacayo in Looking Around writes, "in lawsuits over image appropriation, judges commonly try to decide whether an artist's re-use of earlier material is 'transformative'. If the new image passes that test, the appropriation is protected by the fair use doctrine, which permits limited reproduction of copyrighted material."

And according to Michael Scherer:

"Garcia, who now works at the White House for Bloomberg, says he hopes to get in touch with Fairey so he can talk over the image that has exploded into a pop culture icon. 'Photographers are always getting ripped off,' said Garcia, who quickly added that he was not angry or seeking money from the artist who appropriated his image. 'You see it everywhere. You see it on everything.'

'I'd like to talk to Fairey,' Garcia continued. 'As gentlemen we can work this out. . . . I don't want it to get ugly.'"
It is also clear that at the time that he sampled the Garcia photograph, Fairey had no idea who the photographer was.

But is its also clear to the most casual observer that by now he must know!

That's between them; to me what is also clear, is that this 21st century artistic collaboration, unravelled by 21st century Internet sleuthing, are now and forever intermingled, and the story of the Obama poster now includes the name Mannie Garcia, and Tom Gralish, and Steve Simula, and several others.

Barack Obama photograph by Mannie Garcia

Barack Obama photograph by Mannie Garcia

I plan to write Martin Sullivan, the NPG director a letter on this subject and I hope that some of you do as well. Or you can email Mr. Sullivan at

Write to:

Martin Sullivan
National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
PO Box 37012
Victor Building–Suite 4100 MRC 973
Washington, DC, 20013-7012