New documentary explores how Roy Lichtenstein got famous off of plagiarism

Originally published at: New documentary explores how Roy Lichtenstein got famous off of plagiarism | Boing Boing


It’s just mind-boggling how – in an “industry” devoted to authenticity and separating real artworks from forgeries – they let this guy into the circle. :man_shrugging:



What he does is at least as transformative and no more ethically-fraught than the countless AI header images that grace this site.

Even the “gotcha” image posted at the bottom to supposedly lay bare his ‘plagiarism’ does a better job illustrating how transformative his work was.


Eisman’s panel is far more aesthetically pleasing than Lichtenstein’s appropriation.

I’ve always wondered why the original artists didn’t try their hand at aping the ape. If I were Russ Heath, I’d have raised a big stink, learned to silk-screen, and endeavored to make millions doing “Lichtensteins.”


The main difference though is that Lichtenstein didn’t seem to have any worry about being sued for copyright infringement.


Well I would like to see this documentary to see if it changed my mind. But I would defend Lichtenstein and the Pop Art movement in general.

So, the Pop Art movement was part of the Modern Art movement. The question Modern Art explored was: What is art?

Pop Art focused on the mundane. The throw away art and design we encounter every day with out thinking about it. An intersection of commercial design and products with fine art.

Pop Art was saying that “anything could be art, even the ‘low brow’ and mundane”.

Some examples of Pop Artists would be:

Claes Oldenburg who made recreations of everyday items. Sometimes as large stuffed vinyl sewn pieces, and some times as giant installation outdoor sculptures.

Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton both worked in collage, clipping magazine photos or photocopies and layering them and coloring them.

Jasper Johns, while not strictly a Pop Artists, did a series of repeating flag images.

Andy Warhol, the most famous of the Pop Artists, recreated product packaging like soup cans and laundry detergent boxes, as well as creating colorized prints from photographs of celebrities.

And finally Roy Lichtenstein, who took comic book panels, blew them up, added a dot pattern, and kept to a red/blue/yellow/black/white palette. Some of his work, especially his later works, abandoned the panel recreations, but kept the aesthetics and included images of brush strokes and paint blotches, geometric shapes, and even abstract expressionism.

So Lichtenstein absolutely swiped comic panels. That is true. I would not call it plagiarism. The point wasn’t to make a comic book looking piece - it was to take literally part of a comic, isolate it, transform it, and say “This too is art.” Something that most most people would throw in the trash when they were done with it, now was on the wall of MOMA.

The reason I wouldn’t call this plagiarism is that, as I said, there was a transformative process. The size, editing of the lines, the dot creation process, and the limited color palette were all additions to make something new, even if it was clearly derivative of something before it.

Now, did it suck that the original artists didn’t see any credit even though their work was the basis? Yes. But at the same time that was going on ALL THE TIME within the comics industry. There are thousands of “swipes” documented in comics and other illustrative arts, where someone pressed for time or just lazy will use another work for a short cut on a panel or image. Some of the old pros had whole “swipe books” made of clippings of comics and magazines to use as reference materials.

This practice continues today, where artists are found using photo references they didn’t take (Greg Land is probably the most notorious for using swimsuit models and even porn for references). Panel swipes are still happening, though probably a little less often. What happens all the time are “homage” covers. Covers that re-crate a famous issue cover, but changed to reflect different characters or updated costumes, etc. As cool as some of them are, the whole “homage cover” bit is over used to the point of being lazy.

So, can I understand the sour grapes of a painting based on your panel sold for a millions of dollars? Yes. Totally. There is also the problem that these artists “work for hire” meant they were exploited by the very companies they worked, for, often uncredited and any ideas or characters they came up with, they didn’t see any royalties etc for.

There is also the issue that many of the artists elevated during the Modern Art movement (including Lichtenstein) were elevated because of their relation with the gallery owners. The whims of these people and who they chose to promote made a big impact on who ends up in the art history books, and who is relegated to near obscurity. (And we could get into the whole “Fine Art sales are a racket for the super rich to store wealth”, but that’s for another time.)

So, anyway, hope that adds some context for the movement for anyone who was unfamiliar with the history. Really, with Modern Art, and you see something you think your kid could draw, you have to go back and see what that movement was rebelling against to really “get” the point of the piece. I had similar attitudes until taking more focused art history classes in college.


“Transformative” may sometimes be a defense against copyright violation. (Although the creation of “derivative works,” Is ALSO one of the rights protected by copyright law.) But it has little relevance as to whether Roy’s works are plagiarism. Plagiarism is failing to acknowledge the ideas of others, Copyright protects the expression of those ideas.


I was always more intrigued by Lichtenstein’s process than the subject matter itself. I think the idea of recreating small comic book frames using canvas, paint and various sized Benday Dot stencils is a pretty cool thing. I think that’s where the real art is. That having been said, Roy should have come up with his own design or at least received permission from the original creator.


Plagiarism is not the same as appropriation, though. With appropriation, the artist can directly copy another work, but meaning is added by the knowledge that it is a copy; plagiarism necessitates hiding the origin of the work. (That an appropriation is valued so much more than the work being referenced is down to the grotesque perversities of art markets and the devaluing of “low” culture at the time. There was a long tradition of painters and even photographers appropriating the images of those who came before, on more equal footing. Some artists were more famous - and therefore valuable - than those they appropriated, some less.)

I never liked Lichetenstein myself, but he wasn’t valued because his appropriated compositions were thought to be unique - his style clearly indicated he was appropriating images from comics, even if the specific work he was referencing wasn’t obvious (because neither he nor the art market valued those original compositions). Arguably by merging “high” and “low” culture, he helped pave the way for future comic illustrators to be valued in ways they weren’t at that time. The exploitation of comic illustrators was (and is) terrible, but also a separate issue.

Because the image itself wasn’t actually that important - who was making the image was. The comic illustrators couldn’t turn the tables so easily, because they’d have to establish themselves as valued artists first. (And, ironically, making prints of their own images would probably have haunted them - they were “low artists” pretending to be “high artists,” even if they had established themselves as “high artists” first.)

And in the fine art world, context (used to be) sufficiently transformative all on its own. (Modern copyright having expanded itself to at least muddy those waters, if not eliminate that defense.)


Lichtenstein definitely did enough “transforming” to pass legal hurdles, but if you really want to “Elevate Low Art,” elevate the artists doing the “low art.” I would have preferred it if he blew up a photo, credited the artist and used at least a chunk of his proceeds to either directly support or fight vocally for the rights and respect of comic artists he lifted from. If he did and I don’t know about it, good for him.


A bit off topic, but just saw this and it may be of interest:

I think as far as Lichtenstein goes, given his success, it rankles that he never cited, credited or compensated his sources.


The Washington post had a nice article on this last week. Included in the article was an even better example of the appropriation, showing DC artist Russ Heath’s work from 1962 compared with a Lichtenstein from that same year:


It becomes even clearer where he reproduced the very text in the panel


Or shared some of the funds from selling the pieces with the specific artists whose pieces he drew information from. Especially once Lichtenstein achieved enough financial success that his living was relatively secure.



Huh, irony…


Russ Heath’s version is better too. The wing makes sense, and the “BLAM” being sideways and toppling is a neat touch that plays with the idea of written sound effects, and better gets across the drama of the moment.

Lichtenstein’s is maybe clearer for having less detail, but that’s about it. And also it was bigger and on a better medium than newsprint.



I realize its not going to win anyone over who cant see Lichtensteins paintings as transformative or commentary, or appropriation as opposed to plagiarism - but i do wish side by side comparisons could be presented at scale. :slight_smile: p.s. TIL Irv Novick, original artist of the comic panel (seen on left) knew Lichtenstein and was an army officer at the bootcamp where Lichtenstein trained.

What a lot of people tend to miss in discussions about ‘what is art’ is that things only have value if people are willing to pay for them.

If it wasn’t for Lichtenstein’s work, we wouldn’t be reading a BoingBoing article about Novick, Eisman or Heath as their work would have been thrown in the bin long ago.

If anything, their work is preserved and elevated today because it was used by Lichtenstein.

I’m not saying it’s fair or right, but it’s the way the world works. And this is why Lichtenstein is considered an artist, because he recognised this fact and held it up for people to see. He even parodied it. Image Duplicator

I’ll be watching the documentary later…