On New, Gaga, Enteng
Yet this is more complex than it seems, even as I will not go into what art critic Angelo Suarez thinks, valid as it is:
It is a sadness I share, but also because I feel that with art and culture, while it is easy to identify plagiarized work, i.e., whole paragraphs that are copied off an original, it’s also quite easy to see where influence and mentorship make for works from different artists that become but pieces to a big puzzle of sameness. And too there’s just this: in Third World Philippine culture, where mimicry is what makes money, are any of us original?
“<…> it’s sad that for a sculptor who makes assisted readymades and sculptural assemblages using found, store-bought, and industrial objects – New clings so tightly to intellectual property instead of letting it go despite the reliance of so many artists on strategies of appropriation.” (Facebook status, 10 Feb. 2012)
But all that seems too philosophical for comfort, really, faced as we are with the fact of New filing these charges already. Here and now, what is most interesting is how this case of copyright infringement limns over the crucial issues of fashion design versus wearable art vis-à-vis the manufactured image of a celebrity like Lady Gaga. Here and now the first question has to be about the latter, wearing this muscle bustier in question.
Why? Because current celebrity iconography, especially the kind that Lady Gaga earns from, is premised on a whole image, and is not just about talent. Elvis might have started it with his blue suede shoes, or Marilyn with her stark white dress and red lipstick. But Madonna and her bustier with cones over the boobs has to resonate in this case: Madonna’s fame was and is premised on precisely her look being mimicked. And you don’t even have to be crazy celebrity to be copied: isn’t it that a day after Kate Middleton’s wedding, or the Oscar Awards, the designer gown rip-off industry in the US proves itself alive and well?
It would be crazy to think that Lady Gaga herself doesn’t enjoy the fact that she will be and is copied, her looks being an integral part of her public persona’s success. In that sense one does wonder about “Enteng” having put New’s name in the credits at all. Were his name not there, could the movie’s producers have claimed they were ripping off Gaga and not New? After all, the original New creation has since been labeled the “Lady Gaga Muscle Dress”. After all, the latter is actually a modified two-piece version of the New original, as done by Gaga’s own In-House Atelier. After all, this is Lady Gaga’s public popular image using New’s original artwork and making it her own. “Enteng” and any other copy can claim that they’re a Gaga rip-off and not a New one.
This brings to the fore the fact of art versus popular culture in the articulation of copyright infringement here. Suarez highlights how the use of the terms “’artist’
Of course there is every reason for New to refuse the use of his work for a popular cultural entity such as “Enteng” – though that does point to him drawing a line between the Lady Gagas and Entengs of this world, yes? It actually begs the question: had “Enteng” asked for permission, and knowing full well that this is not at all the breadth and scope – not to mention the sosy – that is Lady Gaga, would they have been allowed to do their version of New’s original for so much less than 10 million pesos?
And given the fact that Lady Gaga’s appropriation of this design to fit her pop image actually gives it new life as costume that practically begs to be ripped-off and copied, one can’t help but wonder: had New’s name not appeared at all in the movie’s credits, would there be a case at all? The producers could say it’s all inspired by the original; they could in fact say that an alteration here, a modification there, means it is only borne of the original and not a straightforward copy. Certainly this is also the kind of reasoning behind the existence of those costume shops in the US; certainly it is how fashion piracy and copycats make for accomplices in the creation of icons, to Lady Gaga’s and Madonna’s glee.
But there is no glee in New. And while that is understandable, the simplicity with which notions of intellectual property and copyright infringement are being viewed here with nary the complexities of context and cultural production can only be problematic. Because when it is wearable art, when it is treated as fashion versus art, when a celebrity who is a fashion icon comes to “publicly own” this piece of art, when this same celebrity’s icon is dependent on being copied and mimicked, how must piracy and copyright be discussed? When art moves from the space of being art, to becoming a costume version in a commercial film made for the annual all-Filipino movie festival, how can we discuss originality and copying and mimicry?
From another perspective in fact, New could see the use of the version of the muscle dress in “Enteng” as a good thing. Now the thousands of Filipinos who saw “Enteng” know of his work. Now the masa that is the Metro Manila Film Festival’s audience must know of costumes that look as fancy as the original muscle bustier, and when they see Lady Gaga wearing it, they can say, ah, that’s made by a Pinoy! Now, New – permissions notwithstanding – might be the only artist who has crossed over to a mass audience in this way in a very very long time.
That can’t be a bad thing, yes? Now if only we could deal with it on this level, too. That would be new.