Stories We Missed: Adam Pendleton vs Alexander McQueen and the Question of Originality in the Digital Age

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Stories We Missed: Adam Pendleton vs Alexander McQueen and the Question of Originality in the Digital Age

Back in October, the art world experienced its own row over intellectual property infringement when prolific American artist Adam Pendleton accused British fashion house Alexander McQueen of copying his art for the design of a clothing line. What an article in The New York Times dubbed ‘McQueen Graffiti’ – close-up printed patterns, spray-painted scribbles in black and white, applied to dresses, handbags and a particular skirt worn by Vogue editor Anna Wintour – looked remarkably like the artist’s canvases of densely layered graffiti. Pendleton, whose public visibility is underscored by his representation by blue-collar galleries Pace, David Kordansky and Max Hetzler, sent a letter to the fashion house through his lawyers. McQueen immediately promised an investigation and assured that the house “takes claims of intellectual property infringement very seriously,” according to The New York Times. However, the response showed little remorse: it was quickly concluded that these designs were in fact ‘independently created’, and no acknowledgment of the artist was necessary.

Clothing from the ‘McQueen Graffiti’ range. Screenshot by Alexander McQueen

This flash is reminiscent of the hackneyed push-and-pull of originality and copying that has occupied the digitized fashion world for some time, which has led to its central arena, the Instagram account Diet Prada, since 2014, a whopping 3, amassed 3 million followers. In such forums, the potential socio-political gravity of copyright infringement (related to the exploitation of minority and independent creatives) is weighed against the opaque and anonymized mechanics by which corporate fashion is mass-produced – namely, that corporate fashion refuses to publicly disclose such mechanics to discuss with everyone. If not completely ignored, official responses to these kinds of accusations mostly reflect a particularly memorable retort by Kylie Jenner (paraphrasing her older sister Kim Kardashian) when fellow influencer Amanda Ensing accused the makeup mogul and reality TV star of directly lifting has a favorable attitude from her digital roster in 2019: ‘You’re not on my mood board, but I got my inspo from Pinterest.’

Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT), 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Jenner’s pithy statement is useful in addressing the most arbitrary and banal ways in which art and fashion are connected through appropriation in the age of aggregator-consumer capitalism. ‘Moodboarding’ is not only a pervasive logic of mass digital consumption, but a central methodology in contemporary fashion design and styling, noted in its emerging practitioners in educational institutions such as London’s Central Saint Martins and Royal College or Art where many of the world’s top fashion houses, including McQueen, source their talent. The violence of the mood board (if we were to go that far) involves treating everything as a potential visual reference to be retrieved from a visual network and aggregated into a historyless yet hyperspecific ‘mood’. Jenner’s statement denies theft, but acknowledges reliance on the most advanced moodboard technology of all – Pinterest – where images, thanks to user uploads of JPEGs, live in various stages of pixelation and miscropping, completely without an original source. As such, moodboarding constitutes a totally different conceptual field of copying than standard theft, artistic appropriation and counterfeiting. The point is not whether Pendleton’s paintings were on the McQueen moodboard (although, to be fair, they probably were), but rather that Pendleton’s paintings already exist in a viral visual ecology of composite images that can use and will become to form products that claim originality: products such as a skirt. With the advent of digital AI image aggregator technologies like Dall-E and Google’s brand new ‘moodboard search’, it looks like we’re crossing another threshold. The fact that the artist regularly posts close-ups of his paintings to his 30,000 followers on Instagram is the clearest evidence of his willful participation in this ecology of ‘moods’, which is increasingly a prerequisite for all artists to succeed in a market to compete. -driven, digital art world.

Accessories from the 'McQueen Graffiti' line.  Screenshot by Alexander McQueen
Accessory bag from the ‘McQueen Graffiti’ line. Screenshot by Alexander McQueen

That Pendleton is singularly invested in visual aggregation as a critical strategy makes this particular case even more interesting. The artist’s work gained traction in 2009 when he began synthesizing ideas of Blackness and institutional critique by Xeroxing hand-copied passages of texts from a variety of artists and thinkers, including Hugo Ball, Stokely Carmichael, Sun Ra and Gertrude Stein. “The new work has become an alternative way of historicizing and organizing information,” he said in an interview for Art in America in 2009; the result, his award-winning book Black Dada Reader (2017), was about ‘radical juxtapositions’ of voices in a way that disrupted established histories and hierarchies between image and language. With an avant-garde tradition of montage and appropriation, the artist even went so far as to say: ‘I like the idea of ​​authorship as an accidental operation. Visually, systemic processes often lead to some of the most rewarding outcomes. If you look at what I actually did – how I put the work together – that’s where most of the information exists.’ Pendleton has since refined this technique of critical ‘organisation’ (what I would call collation) of information into his signature printed canvases where spray-painted words appear off-kilter, overlapping or cut off, especially as a result of perpetual copying (photography, layering, re-printing) . Unrecognizability, in other words, is precisely the point: it is the literal motif of the artist’s expensive canvases, albeit underwritten by a critical methodology of montage and appropriation. That Pendleton’s eventual outcome looks a lot like it real graffiti pushes his work into yet another visual tradition, one that has famously depended on deliberate and strategic obfuscation of authorship—not for reasons of critical appropriation, however, but because of legality concerns.

Adam Pendleton, Black Dada Reader, 2017, book cover. Courtesy: the artist, König Books, London and KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin

The irony that it was Pendleton’s canvases that ended up being ‘moodboarded’ by a corporate fashion brand is not lost on the artist himself, it seems. In a statement to The New York Times, he noted: ‘I believe visual cultural exchange is essential, essential, happening all the time and should happen. But it is about how we assign value and acknowledge. It’s basically someone saying, “You’re not worthy. What you’re doing is not worth recognition.”’ Pendleton is apparently resistant when art is eclipsed by fashion at its own game because the critical condition of production is obliterated or lost somewhere in the post-industrial supply chain. What are considered valuable and where is of course precisely the tender point: both art and fashion make luxury products, but only one gets the distinction of criticism.

‘Adam Pendleton vs Alexander McQueen and the Issue of Originality in the Digital Age’ is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of arts and culture in 2022. Read more – and last year’s stories – here

Main Image: Adam Pendleton, Untitled (WE ARE NOT)2022, silkscreen ink on canvas, 3.05 x 5.94 m. Courtesy: the artist

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