Shop Art Theft: How can the Indies take back the Internet?

Art by Brittney Klein

Words || Angela Heathcote

“It’s Capitalism, really.” Arabella Peterson is cutthroat when it comes to determining why big brands are so reluctant to pay artists. “People just want what’s best for themselves and their company. They’ll do anything to make more money and get away with it without having to pay other people.” As the Editor-in-chief of The Ladies Network, Peterson experiences this grim reality daily.

As we talk, her phone lights up so relentlessly you’d have thought a loved one was attempting to reach her for some tragic reason. But while I make swift glances at the continually illuminating screen, she never loses eye contact. This is normal for Peterson, who commandeers the website and social media accounts of a multi-platform agency for female-identifying and gender fluid creatives. She’s someone Generation X would label “social media savvy.” She only graduated from the University of Technology a year ago and is already giving advice to GQ readers on ‘How to use Instagram to further your creative career.’

As our stream-of-consciousness babbling continues on for the next thirty or so minutes, Peterson accidentally stumbles upon a plan. “If everyone kind of banded together and decided that they weren’t going to settle for anything less than being paid their worth, then it would change the industry for everyone. We could all set a standard together.”

This is something illustrator Adam. J. Kurtz has been working on for a while. He’s both a beneficiary and casualty of social media. As Webmaster for the site, he doesn’t wait for you to browse the site and check the ‘about’ page to find out what he desperately wants you to know. With just two swift scrolls I make my way to the heart of Kurtz’s project.

The text reads, ‘Compare our art with the Zara products for yourself and support artists by purchasing their work directly’.’ What follows is a long list of illustrators and their stolen works. The website’s design allows for no detours. With just one click you’re taken to the original artists’ website – shop all – buy now – confirm payment – thank you for your purchase. Kurtz’s Shop Art Theft Now website is a new kind of collective activism that hones in on Millenials and their buying power. It turns average Instagram users and Tumblr teens into top-notch investigative journalists. “We need you to keep your eyes peeled,” Kurtz urges visitors to his website.

With over a hundred thousand followers on Instagram it was easy for Kurtz to mobilise the masses against fashion juggernaut Zara. But it was the appeals from L.A. based illustrator Tuesday Bassen to her followers that resulted in an irreversible power shift. “Some of you are asking how you can help. Repost and tag them on Twitter, on Instagram and on Facebook,” she wrote. Six thousand-one hundred-and fifty-four comments streamed in. Responses such as “Fuck you @zara” and “@zara you suck ass anyway and this made me hate you even more” decorated Bassen’s original post. Kurtz, while surprised by this overwhelming response, was more than satisfied with what became of the Zara debacle. “I realised there was strength in our numbers. The case is just so big it didn’t feel right to ignore it. I hope to set a precedent for future cases.”

Yet we remain sceptical of social media activism – and rightfully so. At least since 1995, political activists have melded the words slacker and activism in disapproval of what some saw as pathetic attempts at social upheaval. The word ‘slacktivist’ initially described greenies planting a bunch of peonies in their backyards rather than staging elaborate tree sittings, but it now refers to the social media savvy and their double tapping. “Activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change”, wrote Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker. “It doesn’t involve financial or personal risk.”

Much like Shop Art Theft, the Ladies Network features an online bazaar where you can purchase original works by independent artists. I’m no stranger to The Ladies Network website and online store. Provided that they continue to spell Ladies Network using a set of doodled breasts for the letter ‘W’, I’ll endeavour to sport their logo on anything from bags to t-shirts. Peterson reassures me that they’ll re-stock as soon as possible. Aside from the ‘SOLD OUT!’ banners that stamp the brand’s own merchandise, the cache of works by emerging and established artists featured on the site is something Peterson takes pride in. “We want to have this mix of established and emerging artists so that they can all be in the one place and people just starting out in the industry can get a push.” A writer herself, Peterson is reminded of how much time and energy goes into forging a successful creative career, but she’s someone who learned to wield the tools of social media in her favour.

“Had Zara wanted to license art from me, fairly paid, I would have likely said yes,” Kurtz confesses. “It would have been almost nothing to a billion-dollar company like Zara, but significant to me, a sole proprietor.” These kind of rip offs, now facilitated by the like-and-share novelties of social media, are more and more common. But the technology is double-edged sword. Kurtz knows this all too well. Earlier this year, Kurtz brought us the ‘LIKE’ t-shirt that he says began as a low-key art project but was eaten raw by his Instagram following. Now you can even follow @likeshirt as a result of the viral reaction. This kind of attention is enticing for young creatives who would otherwise struggle for recognition. It gives them the unbridled ability to access millions of users at the speed of light and to reap what they sow through Etsy and Big Cartel. But a large social media following clearly doesn’t ensure you won’t be stung.

Even if a business is willing to credit an artist and recognise their labour, this tends to be different from understanding the economic value of their work. “It’s exposure” is a phrase most creatives know all too well. It’s the thing you try and use to pay for your milk and bread at your local supermarket but the merchant just looks at you quizzically, even if you show them your Facebook mention or your Instagram tag.

“It’s like a strange kind of new capitalism”, says Peterson. “I guess it’s like a social currency and businesses know they can use that.” While Peterson acknowledges that this depends on the context, she understands that social media has encouraged form of exploitation But there’s no doubt that this issue goes beyond the Internet. According to an article recently published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper 71 per cent of visual artists in the UK were taking part in publicly funded exhibitions but with no remuneration over the last three years. And the issue is wide reaching. Just last year author Charlotte Wood became the first winner of the Stella Prize who didn’t donate part of $50,000 prize money to charity because she was sick of writers not getting paid.

Peterson says that this unwillingness to pay artists comes down to a number of factors, but the most important one is that they generally underestimate the money, the time and all the resources that it takes to work creatively. Right now, Peterson runs the Ladies Network with no financial incentive so she relies on collaborations where there is mutual gain as opposed to exploitation from large companies who do have the budgets, but stay reluctant.

When talking about her time at university she says, “It’s just an accepted fact if you’re going into the arts that you’re not going to be incredibly wealthy from your craft.” And the Arts stigma seemed to have casts a few doubts. “I’ll think ‘why didn’t I just choose a different career I could be rich now or I could be on the path to making a living,’”

“Our arts funding is pretty dismal and the government doesn’t really care too much about the creative industries. The merging of art schools, the cuts to art funding in theatre and galleries – it’s heading down a dangerous road because if we take away the culture and the art of a city or a country or a society it’s pretty bleak.” Peterson and I have studied media and communication, her at UTS and myself at Macquarie, but there’s solidarity in our experiences. We’re both right to feel anxious about our future careers but why more so than students in any other field? Writing for The Washington Post, Farred Zakaria summarises, “If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills.” He goes on, “Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses and de-emphasise the humanities.” And the rhetoric is clearly not so different in Australia.

After enduring every artists’s nightmare, Adam Kurtz is nothing but forgiving. When I ask him what young creatives should do to prevent the same thing from happening to them he puts it simply. “Bad things happen. Don’t stop making and sharing your art.” His optimism is aided by the success of Shop Art Theft in bringing about real change for artists who would otherwise be voiceless. A statement from a Zara representative published in The Guardian was a far cry from their initial response to Tuesday Bassen. “On receiving these allegations, the relevant items were immediately suspended from sale and an investigation opened.” What followed was an example of how a collective initiative spread across social media could work in favour of the “starving artist.”

With this in mind Peterson rightfully encourages creatives to harness social media despite the risks. Having worked with many emerging and established artists, Peterson knows how many of them have finally made their big breaks through their own Instagram accounts and the promotion of their work on these kinds of platforms, some even culminating into small businesses. It seems you can’t avoid social media, and relinquishing it altogether seems senseless, but understanding one’s worth, both personally and economically is crucial. Three days of labour is not equal to the sum of a Facebook or Instagram mention. She ends, “negotiate, set contracts and show businesses that creatives are smart, they mean business and they’re not going to be taken advantage of.”