We now have one more reason to look forward to the death of the book. It’ s to minimize the recurrence of atrocious cultural crimes like the recent sale at auction for £3,554,500 ($5,684,356) of a painting by British artist Glenn Brown that faithlessly copies a science fiction book cover illustration by Chris Foss, Isaac Asimov’s The Stars Like Dust. Foss himself, apparently, got nothing.

book covers
As an exercise in conceptual art, I’m not quoting the source of this image. Now pay me $5 million

Brown, it seems, does this regularly – repainting the work of book artists and others like Foss, sometimes in slightly different colors, often on a rather larger scale, and in the process, somehow, magically, produces something that for some reason is worth scads more cash than the original work, and which evokes vaporish effusions from buyers, sellers, and critics that would make even Walter Pater barf. You can read more analysis of all this here. And here.

A couple of personal notes here. I took two years of art history at Cambridge, and I worked briefly in commercial galleries during my vacations. So I know quite a lot about the conventions of art criticism – and the pretensions of the commercial art market. Also, I grew up with Chris Foss’s book jackets as a nerdy science fiction fan in the 1970s. So I really do know whereof I speak.

Which is just as well when it comes to dismissing some of the shriekingly bogus arguments used to defend, and to justify the valuations on, the supposedly post-modern, and patently posy, pastiches of Glenn Brown and his peers. I won’t dignify many of them by quoting them here, simply because that would give them a credibility they don’t deserve. Although the apparatus of auction houses, museum curators, collectors and art investors, whose money depends on people – literally – buying those arguments, have every interest to promote them, no matter how specious. But just to give one example, by no means the worst, from a curator of a recent Glenn Brown show. “There is this wonderful thing Glenn does and I don’t think any other painter does [it] – he questions the existence of painting itself.”

That’s an interesting slip for a curator to make. Because as it happens, artists have been doing this at least since Manet, and full tilt for the entire 20th century. Maybe someone should tell her?

You can get some idea of the atmosphere and culture that leads to this kind of thing in Blouin ArtInfo’s rather grotesque description of the Sotheby’s auction night that led to the sale, described as a sort of bastard cross between a cattle auction, a speed dating tournament, and a night at Britain’s Got Talent, where, we are informed, “auctioneer and contemporary art specialist Oliver Barker ran the early lots at a breakneck, machine gun-like pace that evoked the pace of famed television series ‘Breaking Bad’.” Clearly a lot of thought and time put into connoisseurship and appreciation there, rather than simply ramping up prices fast and hard enough to rake in serious dosh.

I haven’t read any comments yet from Foss himself on the affair. But his work is still available for sale directly, from his own website. So I hope some of the fans who feel his images are so valuable are going to actually reward the original creator himself.

In these financially challenged times of foodbanks and Occupy riots, I’m really gratified to know that there is still money to be thrown away on this poisonous trash. That must be so reassuring for the plebs whose toil ultimately bankrolls these circuses. And come the next bonfire of the vanities, I know what I’m going to vote for top of the pile.



  1. Lichtenstein is actually a completely different story. He and Warhol at least did something different and transformative with the art they used. But as Chris says, Glenn Brown is simply doing “Xerox copying.”

  2. Who didn’t admire the pairing of Foss’ art with Asimov? To me, it invoked a prose version of crisp apple cider and sharp cheddar, consumed on a spring afternoon.

    Like many of my peers I have a problem with “artists” re-hashing the genius of others altogether, let alone that of a pioneering great. I disliked an individual adding zombies to Pride & Prejudice (and thereby making a truckload of casheroo) and I will further risk criticism by voicing a similar dislike of Warhol making a name for himself by duplicating the genius of sequential art masters that went before him.

    I realize that there is nothing new under the sun, but–as a writer–plagiarism, in all its forms, ranks just below water pollution on my List Of Nighted Garb.

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