Blog / 2016 / On David Bowie, Fan Art, and Companies Killing Creativity

March 9, 2016

Generally speaking, I don’t make paintings or drawings of celebrities or of famous characters. In my whole career, I’ve never made a single piece of fan art, even though one of my special pleasures in life is looking at other people’s fan art and revisiting stories I love through the creativity of another fan (like Kelly McKernan for example).

the Little Prince escaping with parrots
Gwenn Seemel
Parroted Prince
2014
acrylic on unmounted canvas
12 x 12 inches

When I do depict well-known characters, it’s only to remix and re-purpose them, for a book about copyright when it comes to the Little Prince...

painting of a bear in a forest being burned down by copyright
Gwenn Seemel
Only You
2014
acrylic on unmounted canvas with digital addition
12 x 12 inches

...or Smokey the Bear...

Rosie the Riveter wearing a headscarf
Gwenn Seemel
Raha the Riveter (German-Iranian-American, Kristina)
2008
acrylic on canvas
41 x 38 inches

...and for a series about what it means to be an American when it comes to Rosie and some other characters from US history and mythology.

painted portrait of a white man with an intense gaze
Gwenn Seemel
Guillaume
2005
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

Until recently, the only celebrity portrait I’d ever done was the one shown above (as well as this one), and only because the celebrity himself commissioned me to do that work. (And also requested that I don’t use his name to make my art famous.) I get the appeal—both the artistic and the financial appeal—of making fan art of all kinds, but it’s not my thing.

drawing of David Bowie
Gwenn Seemel
David Bowie
2016
marker on paper
9 x 6 inches

That said, when David Bowie passed away, I was moved to make a drawing of him as the Goblin King from Labyrinth. Eventually, I posted the drawing on my Redbubble profile, not expecting that it would sell particularly well but thinking it might please some people who enjoy my work and also like Bowie.

Unfortunately, none of these (maybe made-up) simultaneous fans of Bowie and me ever got to see the work because Redbubble took it down immediately, stating that my drawing looked like stuff that Bravado International Group Merchandising Services Inc had objected to in the past and therefore Redbubble chose to simply delete my art from the site.

When I asked Redbubble for a copy of the original complaint that had inspired the preemptive takedown, Redbubble told me it could not show it to me. This struck me as strange, so I asked Redbubble why it could not show me the complaint. And then I asked again. And again. When I finally received an answer, it was this perfectly lawyerly one: “due to the sensitive nature of these complaints we are not able to share this specific takedown notice.”

Really? Sensitive? In what way? Is Redbubble worried it will be sued for sharing the complaint? Or would Redbubble be required to remove my entire profile? What is going on here? And don’t I have the right to know?!

I’m totally annoyed, but not in the least bit surprised. It’s hardly news that a company is protecting some other company as well as itself, while also crapping all over creativity and creatives in the process.

In fact, if that was where the story ended, I wouldn’t be sharing any of this with you, because spineless behavior in the face of a potential IP threat is commonplace. The reason I am sharing this all with you is because I recently came across something beautiful and shiny and utterly astounding: a company that’s trying to protect itself from copyright law’s greedy progeny while also nurturing creativity. The rare, brave bird is Patreon, a service which helps artists like me to receive financial support from people who like their work.

Patreon published its policy for dealing with takedown notices here, and, while it’s not as audacious as I’d like it to be, I love it for two reasons:

  1. Patreon posted its policy because, unlike the close-mouthed and cowardly PoopBubble, it wants its users to understand what it is doing.
  2. Patreon is pushing back against the copyright conglomerates that troll the Web looking to suck the joy out of culture.

Patreon has just made me SO HAPPY.

UPDATE

January 3, 2019

In 2016, 2017, and 2018 I didn’t like Patreon very much, but they made important changes and I like the company again.

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