What Do Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Have in Common?

A few days ago, I was watching an episode on the HBO series, Vice, called “The Business of Making Art”. The episode covers how Andy Warhol appropriated works of others in his own silkscreen paintings. The technique of silkscreen painting is something that I am very familiar with.

I grew up watching my mother, a graphic designer in India, make silkscreens by hand everyday and then use those screens to print thousands of pages for her clients by hand. I won’t bore you with technical details of the process (..but  is truly fascinating to watch!). In short, it involves stretching mesh/silk fabric onto a wooden frame with the help of a hammer and staple gun, making a positive of the work to be printed, coating the screen with emulsion, leaving it in a dark room to dry, exposing the image on the screen, cleaning the screen by spraying water to reveal the image to be printed and then printing by hand with a squeegee. The final products, be it business cards, invitations, brochures or t-shirts, are then left to dry on drying racks. As mommy’s little helper, I was usually assigned the task of laying the final products on drying racks, usually running from one room to another.  If it sounds time consuming and tough, that is because it absolutely is!   

What I realized while watching the Vice episode is that Andy Warhol used the same silkscreen printing technique for his works. The Marilyn Diptych is the same photograph of Marilyn Monroe 25 times. Neither was the silk screen printing process  proprietary to Warhol, nor was the image/photograph. He appropriated the photograph taken by someone else and repurposed it into his own medium using an age old technique. Andy Warhol appropriated many such images from commercial art and popular culture and used it in his own works employing silkscreen printing.

So can you get into legal trouble for appropriating someone else’s work into your own? Andy Warhol definitely saw his share of legal troubles during his time after which he started licensing work from artists to be able to use it in his own work. Works like Campbell’s Soup Can were an exception because Campbell realized they were getting free publicity from Warhol’s display and distribution of the work.

If you want to use a photograph, image or work created by another artist, it is best to get written permission or license to use it.

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