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But Is It Art?

Sundance Channel did it again yesterday with "Waiting for Hockney," a riveting documentary about a guy named Billy Pappas who spent eight years working on a super-detailed pencil drawing of a Richard Avedon photograph of Marylin Monroe. The details are literally microscopic, resulting in a work that is at first glance stunning and then becomes oddly repulsive when you move in close with a magnifying glass and see pores and a single hair growing out of a mole on Marylin’s skin.

Pappas hoped that famed painter David Hockney would open the doors of the commercial art world for him, but it was not to be. In the years that followed Pappas received no commissions, and went back to bartending.

The documentary leaves the ultimate questions of what is art and who is an artist up in the air. There are no answers, but we wish there were.

Pappas’s site can be seen here.

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Not art. Don't ask me why.

If he'd done the same type of portrait of his mother, or his cleaning lady, or the homeless guy who sleeps in his alley, then maybe art... But only maybe.

The whole thing leaves me in an odd, suspended state. In the documentary he comes across as a likable guy, obviously sincere and dedicated, and determined. It gets complicated when the issue of exploitation is raised. Avedon exploited Marilyn. Pappas exploited both Avedon and Marilyn. Marilyn exploited countless photographers and film makers as much as they exploited her. And so on.

For me it's not so much the exploitation angle. (I mean, obviously I haven't seen the film so I'm riffing on my own thoughts here.) For me all art is exploitation -- and I say this as someone who's an artist wannabe: I'm a writer, I take my inspiration from the people around me, distorting their words into dialogue; you're a photographer, you creep up on unwary subjects and steal their souls with your camera. I can't comment on my own work, but I'd say some of your photos -- and I've been following them for a long time in this space-- meet my definition of art.

And just what is my definition of art? Well, just for the moment: art is that transcendent moment.

What Pappas does is just so fucking banal. There is craft involved, obviously. And you couldn't teach that craft to a gorilla -- though you might be able to program it into a computer. But craft alone doesn't take the viewer outside himself.

I don't know if what motivates me to write narratives or make (or steal!) images is what motivates others, but the impulse was with me in boyhood, and it was in the form of an elaborate defense that included the notion that being a detached observer, or witness, was much preferable to being a participant. Journalism, of course, captivated me. Ditto photography. It's like: Hey, I'm here to see and describe and photograph YOU, rather than the other way around. Better that I learn who you are, rather than you ever finding out who I am.

It's art, yes, simply in that it uses art media and took skill to do, but is it original art? No. Why the hell a detailed drawing took 8 years to do, is beyond me. With concentration a good artist could do that in a few days. Why they'd actually want to, I don't know, but they could. For instance, look at the echings of Albrecht Durer - there was a master of detail! But to jump on the bandwagon of someone else's fame and just try to reproduce it - and not even the fame itself but the physical form of a human being who, for a time, contained it. Mmm... no. Not art.


It took eight years because each day he worked on an area no larger than the size of a period on a newspaper page, using powerful magnifiers. Also this: Pappas had a generous patron who gave him envelopes each month with cash, with the understanding that he would pay it back someday, when he could. He owes about $300,000.


What makes me mad is the picture of the girls shoulder is my wife which billy would come to our house several times over the years to use her as the model but they credit it as being his sisters. She was even suppose to be in the doc. But I guess it all comes down to money

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