Thursday, November 5, 2009

Watusi Twists Under the Wheels of the White House Bus

Ben Shapiro at Big Hollywood has an interesting report on the Alma Thomas painting "Watusi (Hard Edge). For those who may not recall, the Thomas painting closely resembled the Matisse painting "L'escargot," causing some to say it was copied. Of course this has absolutely nothing to do with the decision to remove the painting from the White House:
According to Semonti Stephens, Michelle Obama’s deputy press secretary, the painting was moved “because it didn’t fit the space right.”
Shapiro adds the White House explicitly denies the controversy over the painting has anything to do with the decision and the The Washington Post dutifully posts to back up their claim:
Stephens’s explanation makes sense because it is inconceivable that the White House’s art experts would imagine Thomas’s painting was fraudulent or a copy … Elaborations on earlier artists’ work, even full appropriation, have been common practice in art for hundreds of years.
Shapiro is skeptical of the argument as am I.  I posted on this topic when the controversy arose in early October.  The other day I had an unusual visitor reading that post:

My post was found through this google search, which seems to totally refute the fact that the controversy had nothing to do with the decision to remove the painting.  Clearly someone in the Executive Office of the President was curious about the controversy over the Matissse and Thomas paintings which led me to wonder  when I saw the visit, why the issue was being looked at now.  The decision to remove the painting answers my question.

For the record, I defended Thomas' right to copy the work as this is what artists do when they want to learn from or make a different statement than the original piece.  I didn't see Thomas' painting as transformative, however, which would make it arguably an infringement rather than plagiarism under current copyright law.  The Washington Post mentions the original post in Free Republic by SnappedShot blog author Brian C. Ledbetter, then makes the argument when Thomas' painting was first done, it likely didn't create any controversy at all.  Indeed copyright laws were different then, though the Washington Post fails to mention that point.

It doesn't seem likely we are heading back to the days when Thomas' painting would be exhibited without question.  Yesterday, Red State linked an article at that disclosed a secret copyright treaty that further expands the reach of copyright laws in very threatening ways.  The Obama administration has been unwilling to disclose provisions of the treaty due to "national security concerns."  I am at a loss to explain how copyright laws relate to national security but Thomas' painting would not likely fair very well if such a treaty were enforced:
That the whole world must adopt US-style "notice-and-takedown" rules that require ISPs to remove any material that is accused -- again, without evidence or trial -- of infringing copyright. This has proved a disaster in the US and other countries, where it provides an easy means of censoring material, just by accusing it of infringing copyright.
Is this all a big coincidence or did the White House remove the painting knowing the Watusi painting would be the first thing pointed to if the details of the leaked copyright treaty proved to be accurate?   I guess we will find out soon enough.  In the mean time, it is very difficult to believe the painting was removed only because it didn't fit the space.


  1. I can't believe the White House visited your blog.  **Open mouthed wonder** It's amazing that the White House would actually check blogs.  Boy.  

  2. Actually it didn't surprise me that much.  I never had a political blog under any other administration but I frequently have visitors from the Senate and House of Representatives.  Occasionally they send out posts on facebook if they are favorable.   I never had the Executive office though  and I really did wonder why that post was of interest.


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