Chuck Close Succeeds In Stifling A Creative Homage... But Only For Another 100 Years Or So!

from the copyright-as-censorship dept

Chuck Close is an interesting artist. One of the most famous, most successful artists alive today, he paints giant portraits of people based on photographs. He does so by enlarging photographs, dividing up the images, and copying smaller areas square by square. The effect is quite striking. A couple years ago, there was an astoundingly fascinating interview of both Close and famed neuroscientist Oliver Sachs (who the movie Awakenings was based on) talking about how both have face blindness, in that they simply cannot recognize faces. Given that, it's interesting to see that Close's entire career is based on painting faces.

Scott Blake is a long-time devoted Chuck Close fan -- and also a skilled computer artist. In 2001 he had the idea to create a "Chuck Close Filter," which would take images and turn them into something that looks like a Chuck Close image. While it took a lot of work, and was showcased at an exhibit in 2002, he said that computers weren't fast enough to make use of the filter in realitime at the time. In 2008, computers were fast enough that they could take an uploaded photo and automatically generate a "Chuck Close filtered version," so he set up a site called Two years later than that, Close threatened to take legal action against him. Blake has now detailed the whole thing in a long blog post. Here's the exchange between the two, though, reading the entire story (and seeing the images) is absolutely worthwhile:

I never intended to rip off Chuck Close, so when he emailed me in November 2010 threatening legal action, I did exactly what he said and took my filter offline immediately. Still, I feel obligated to point out that Close is the 14th richest living artist, worth a staggering $25 million. I really don’t think any work I make is going to “jeopardize” his career or his livelihood.

Here is what he wrote (in all caps):


I replied:

I have attempted to get in touch with you. I think your art is great. I drove 10 hours to see your exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in 1998 and was blown away. I wish we had met under better circumstances. I understand you do not want me to continue my Free Chuck Close Filter, but I would like the opportunity to talk with you before you take any legal action. I believe my website is not copying your art, but rather is a logical extension of the creative process. Please consider talking with me before you make legal decision, from one artist to another.

Close wrote back:

Even if your motives are not bad, I still do not want my work trivialized. I must fight you because if I know of your project, and do nothing to exercise my legal rights, that will put me in a position where I can’t fight the next, even more egregious usage of my copyrighted image and use of my name. It may be an amusing project and many people might like it, but it is MY art that is trivialized, MY career you are jeopardizing, MY legacy, which I have to think about for my children, and MY livelihood. I must fight to protect it. I hope you will realize the harm you are doing me and my work that you claim you admire and voluntarily shut down the site so as to avoid a law-suit.

I responded:

I respect your decision, and I have shut my free online filter down. I feel obligated to help stop this from happening again. I believe it is better to respond to the situation than delete the project without any explanation. Please review

He wrote:

Thank you so much for your decision. I must say I didn’t expect it. It means a lot to me that you were able to understand my point of view. Thank you. Im in Germany till the end of December, but after I’m back and if you are in New York City, come by and say hello.

The last thing I said to him was:

Thank you for accepting my sincere apology, and especially for inviting me to your New York City studio. I live in Omaha, Nebraska, but I might make a special trip just to see you.

I have trouble believing there's a realistic copyright claim here. If anything, I'd think he would have a stronger publicity rights claim (or possibly trademark name if he's trademarked his name, though a quick USPTO search fails to find a trademark on Chuck Close), but publicity rights claims are a bit messy (and vary state to state) so even that's not entirely clear. But the larger point is how shameful it is for Close to legally threaten another creative individual for doing something that, if anything, would inspire greater interest in Chuck Close's work. The idea that the filter "jeopardizes" Close's career makes no sense at all. Who is really going to see a filtered image and suddenly think they no longer need to see Close's real work? If anything it's likely to inspire the exact opposite.

Separately, Close is grossly misinformed in saying that he has to take legal action or he loses the ability to do so with others. While something sort of like that (but not quite) is true with trademark law, it's entirely permissible to ignore infringement under copyright (or even to issue free licenses to those you like).

But the weirdest claim is that this hurts his "legacy." I would argue that being an absolute jerk to someone who created a filter as an homage to you hurts your legacy a hell of a lot more than the filter itself.

Blake notes that while he has shut down the site, he has a plan. Recognizing that eventually Close's works will go into the public domain, he's made plans for the filter to be re-released in 100 years after Close's death, on the assumption (perhaps not a good one due to extensions) that the works will be public domain by then:
I asked my lawyer friend if I could release my Chuck Close Filter 100 years after Close dies and his copyright runs out; my lawyer assured me that I could do so without fear of reprisal. I have not made Close aware of my plans, but if he finds out, I would be surprised if he wasn’t insulted. Don’t get me wrong, I know we will both be dead in 100 years, but the point is that our art will live on, and that is what matters to me most. We all have a legacy to think about; Chuck Close isn’t the only one.
Blake also challenges some of Close's claims of originality, including his argument that his paintings came along before computer generated art. Blake shows that's not true, and even shows some compelling evidence that there's at least a greater-than-zero chance that Close, in fact, was inspired by computer generated art that pre-dated his own. Either way, Blake has decided that the best plan at this point -- if he can't actually offer a Chuck Close filter -- is to make sure the world knows that Chuck Close acts this way towards fans and those who create tools that celebrate him.
I believe my art is fair use, but I don’t have a war chest to back up that assertion in a courtroom, so the wealthy bully wins by default. My only recourse is to publicize my defeat in order to shine a light on these types of situations. My hope is that Chuck Close develops a sense of shame and regret, realizes his mistake and offers up an apology. I want this article to serve as a point of reference for current and future artists. The worst part about this whole mess is that it makes established visual artists like Close seem petty. By not embracing new and interesting ways of making art, he is contributing to the widening of the generation gap. His irrational fear of computers has made him wildly out of touch with my generation and generations to come. I feel he singled me out because I choose to work in a medium that he finds inferior.

I think Close is confusing enterprise with creativity; they are not the same and in some cases can work against one another. In the end, I believe Close’s misguided and hypocritical actions will do more harm to his legacy than any so-called “derivative art” could ever do. His behavior has left me no choice but to carry out my 100-year plan.
It's always disappointing to see artists harm the works of others with excessive copyright claims. There's simply no reason that Close needed to act this way, and count me among those who has shifted from being a fan of Close's work to someone who just isn't interested in supporting him in any way after actions like this.

Filed Under: chuck close, copyright, homage, scott blake

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    pnips, 16 Jul 2012 @ 9:14am

    If I'd seen a handful of Close's paintings without reading the article first, I would have thought they had been produced by a filter.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.