Shia LaBeouf Really Thinks He’s an Appropriation Artist

12.19.13 Andy Cush

At the end of our last post about Shia LaBeouf’s bizarre plagiarism saga, I posed a rhetorical question: “Does he think he’s Richard Prince, or is he just a much bigger dummy than we thought?” The actor, facing criticism after it had become clear that his short film HowardCantour.com severely ripped off Daniel Clowes’ comic Justin M. Damiano, tweeted an apology that was plagiarized from a four-year-old Yahoo Answers entry. 

Was he trying to be clever, or is he really that bad at coming up with original material? This morning, he apologized again.

The text is lifted straight from Shepard Fairey’s apology to the Associated Press for using their photograph of Barack Obama in his iconic “Hope” image. Here’s the apology:

In an attempt to conceal my mistake, I submitted false images and deleted other images,” said Fairey, who has been involved in countersuits with the AP, which has alleged copyright infringement. “I sincerely apologize for my lapse in judgment, and I take full responsibility for my actions, which were mine alone.

By coyly referencing a well-known debate about artistic appropriation, LaBeouf is getting some epic lulz. To him, this is a pretty profound statement: you squares crying “plagiarism” don’t understand. This is art, and we artists are above such plebeian concerns.

But there’s a big difference between recontextualizing or commenting upon a preexisting work and simply trying to pass it off as your own. When Richard Prince puts his own name on a copy of The Catcher in The Ryehe’s deliberately calling into question established ideas about artistic ownership. When Kanye West samples Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit” in a song about a struggling relationship, he’s personalizing the political, arguing that generations of racism and oppression impact every facet of black life in America, even those that aren’t immediately obvious.

Even Shepard Fairey, whose art generally can’t hold a candle to Prince’s or West’s, was working on solid artistic ground. One easy way to interpret the “Hope” image is that Fairey took a relatively ordinary image of a presidential candidate and made it iconic. More generously, rendering Obama in Fairey’s “propaganda” aesthetic presents a double entendre, endorsing the candidate while acknowledging its own status as manipulative political art.

LeBouf doesn’t do anything nearly so interesting. In HowardCantour.com, he simply takes plot points, dialogue, and imagery from Clowes’s work and claims it as his, without bringing anything original to the table. Good artists appropriate because it allows them to express an idea. Shia LeBouf steals because he’s either too lazy or too stupid to come up with anything good on his own.