Still Wrestling with David Shields

79º ~ today I noticed the sun rising later for the first time, a hint that the seasons might actually change, a hint in the forecast that we may not experience the 99+ days this week, and miracle of miracles, the window open this morning and no muggy heat seeping in, just a cool sense of the outer world

Ah, Dear Readers, I am troubled.  I continue to mull over my thoughts about David Shields’ book Reality Hunger and his thoughts on an artist’s ownership of his or her works.  If you missed the discussion, you can catch up here and here, where I comment after checking out the book itself.  Today, I’ve been reading another essay by Shields that was published in Volume 3, Issue 1 of The Normal School, one of my newest favorite lit mags.  I’ve read Shields’ essay there and have scribbled all over the margins, but I’m holding off on commenting just yet.  The essay is followed by another by a different writer in conversation with Shields and I want to digest that too.

So why bring it up, you ask.  Well, thanks to some long lingering doubts and Marie Gauthier’s blog, I couldn’t leave it alone today. 

First the doubts.  While thinking about Shields’ argument for the right to mish-mash the words of other writers without having to attribute the copyright, I had this vision of how this might apply in the art world.  According to Shields’ premise, he would be fine with me copying the paintings of great artists and then having a show of my own in which I placed these pieces of art “in conversation” without adding the typical tag next to the art that gives the who and when for the piece.  Really?  That just rankles me…in this scenario, I would not be an artist, but a copyist.  Yes, there is value in putting pieces of art, fragments of dialogue, bits of music “in conversation,” but to act as if they are my original works, as Shields does in his book, I just can’t get my Midwestern ethics around that.

***I do know that Shields expects his readers to pick up on the fact that he’s quoting from others, and when the quotes are obvious, I did; however, when it turned out that the majority of his book was made of copied paragraphs, I had serious doubts about his work.  Much more on this later.

Here’s an image I did capture myself at school last week that sums up how my brain feels right now.

As some of you know, I’ve taken to creating collage cards, mixing images and text that I’ve cut out from magazines, junk mail, and any other material I can get my hands on.  I make these cards as inspiration for poems and also as personal cards that I send to friends and family.  When I started doing this, I talked with an artist friend of mine about the rights of the artist.  After all, I was chopping up their work and had no way of attributing it, as many of the photographers weren’t listed on the junk mail or in the ads of magazines.  However, there were some images with credits.  Talking with my artist friend, we talked about collage and fair use and how I wasn’t using the entire photograph and calling it my own.  I was cutting it up and making something new.  She said that was okay and that artists had been doing it for quite a long time. 

Then, today, I was blog reading and Marie Gauthier provided a link to photographer Steve McCurry’s blog.  Marie’s link was to the most recent post of images of people reading, which is really cool.  However, I caught the title for the previous post and had to click it:  Pirating and Plagiarizing.  In this post, McCurry gives examples of people using his images without seeking permission or rights.  In fact, he talks about one woman submitting his photographs as her own and getting them published.  ACK!  Of course, I’m on his side!  This is exactly my problem with David Shields’ non-quotation marked, embedded quotes (what his book is mostly made of).  And yet, now I wonder, have I done the same thing with my cards.  No, I do not sell them, no I do not publish them as “art.”  I do not claim the images as my own.  They are private, and no one who sees them would believe the images to be my original work.  Have I crossed a line?  Should I stop?

I did do a quick Google of “fair use in art” and “collage copyright,” and it seems that artists are being warned against collage that uses other people’s images.  If I don’t claim to be an artist, is what I’m doing okay?  Because I use images from popular magazines and advertisements, is that different from using images from photos that are fine art?  Who owes what to whom?

I’m troubled, Dear Reader, because I get such joy and such a creative charge from creating these cards.  Must I stop?

Posted by Sandy Longhorn


Naw girl–especially if you don't sell them, collage away.

I do understand how you feel about the David Shields thing, though, and I'm from the Midwest too. I'm so scrupulous it's actually kind of hard for me to be alive. I was raised to believe that if you tell a lie or take something that isn't yours the police will come, instantly. This makes it hard to be avant-garde sometimes, though, so I do see both sides of the issue.

Sandy Longhorn

Oh, Tricia, thanks for the laugh re: doing something bad = the police come and take you away!


I think exceptions legally exist for "personal use" — you're not stealing someone's art & reselling it as your own, but recycling & recreating for your own enjoyment. Totally legit.

Thanks for the shout-out — I noticed that post title, too, but didn't have the time to go on & read. I love the serendipity of blog-hopping.

Sandy Longhorn

Thanks, Marie. Serendipity is great!

If you're not making money and you're not having gallery/museum shows, I wouldn't see the harm in using other images.

I teach a variety of applied art students (graphic designers and such) who are remarkably blase about using the images created by others and they're also blase about others using their images. Fine artists might have a different take, but all of my students would tell you not to give it a second thought.

Of course, many of them wouldn't hesitate to turn in plagiarized papers . . .

Sandy Longhorn

Kristin, thanks for the perspective. I do think there's a shift going on in the next generation about ideas of intellectual ownership. It worries me.

Jessie Carty

I wish I was at my computer with an easier way to top because I think this is such an important discussion. I totally agree that if you are only using the collages for personal use there is no worry but I feel pretty strongly that any quote should be at least italicized to note it is not the authors creation. But how many words before you have to attribute? That's the part of the debate that makes me pause…

Sandy Longhorn

Jessie, thanks for chiming in. Just to clarify…with my collages the words come from headlines or other large type in magazines/junk mail/etc.

As for the Shields thing and quotes…I got the feeling that 99% of the book was composed of unattributed paragraphs from many, many different sources. His point was to put them all in dialogue with each other and to make the reader question the lyric "I" of the essay form, if I understand his manifesto correctly. Lots to think about…