Monday, August 30, 2010

Order in the Court! I’ll take one of me arguing before The Supremes. (Use my good side, would you.)

I’m always interested in reading about how people, in general, make their living, and, more particularly, how creative souls – artists, musicians, actors, bloggers writers – cobble together their livelihoods.

Just how difficult it is to eke out a living in the arts came home to me a few years back when I was walking down Charles Street in Boston and noticed a couple of painters carrying a ladder and paint buckets into a building. One guy looked familiar, and after a moment it dawned on me that I’d seen him in a play at the late and lamented (at least by me) Súgán Theatre a couple nights earlier. As they say, keep your day job.

And many years ago, I was in a restaurant in Carmel, California, eavesdropping on a couple of actors talking about how they got into their roles. I didn’t recognize either of the women, but they were certainly serious about their craft, even though, as it turned out, the role that one of them was talking about was for a training film for Delta Airlines.

Of course, actors have it worse than many other creative commoners. Other than doing ads – and, boy, do I hate to hear a voice over by Martin Sheen or Michael Douglas, hogging what for them must be chump-change jobs that could go to a struggling actor - and corporate training films, there aren’t all that many parallel or tangential jobs for actors. Sure, there’s always community theater and charades, but…

Writers, on the other hand, can always work on brochures (sigh!). Musicians can ply their trade on a subway platform, collecting change and an occasional bill in their guitar case.

As for artists, there’s a lot of things they can do. And one of them is apparently working as court artists.

Sure, given that you can’t take a camera into most courts, I do see the sketches on the news all the time – O.J., the Craigslist killer, Justice Sotomayor (not to lump Sotmayor in with O.J. or the Craigslist killer). But I hadn’t really given all that much thought to court artist as a profession until I saw an article in the NY Times the other day on Todd Crespi.

Crespi, who has worked as a “legal portraitist” (his words – from a letter to the editor of The Times, which ran a couple of days after the less-than-flattering article about him) for CNN, now focuses much of his work on selling vanity portraits of lawyers who argue before the Supremes.

Hey, I’m sure that if I’d argued a case before SCOTUS, I’d want to commemorate it somehow. It’s certainly a bigger deal than, say, giving a presentation on managed hosting at Internet World – during which at least you could get your photo snapped.

It seems, however, that a Crespi portrait is not quite bespoke. It’s more custom-off-the-shelf: generic court background, with you, making your brilliant argument, at the fore.

Now there’s certainly a long and noble tradition of fill in the blanks portraiture in this country.  Didn’t itinerant artists go around with the bodies drawn ahead of time, and whip up a your-head-goes-here portrait on the spot?

The problem, apparently, is that Crespi didn’t actually disclose this to his clients, and, more or less, gave them the impression that he was there in court, sketching away, catching them in the midst of a brilliant argument. When it was more likely that he was coloring them in based on a photograph.

I’m a marketing writer, so I know all about repurposing content. But this does seem a bit shabby.  And the results can be cheesily humorous:

Lisa S. Blatt, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter, said she was amused by a Crespi work her husband had bought for her.

“It’s one of his stock pictures where he paints the advocate after the fact,” Ms. Blatt wrote in an e-mail. “It’s funny because his picture always has Carter Phillips as the opposing counsel and Carter was actually my co-counsel in the case.”

Asked if she felt misled, Ms. Blatt said Mr. Crespi “doesn’t adequately disclose,” adding that several lawyers in the United States solicitor general’s office have “the exact same picture.”

And those pictures don’t come cheap:

Lawyers who have bought his work said they paid around $1,200 for the basic version and $1,600 for one showing members of the lawyer’s family in the audience.

Some clients (like Blatt) don’t seem to mind the cookie-cutter nature of the artwork; others feel they were “duped” or “deceived.”

Well, they’ll all know better now.

Caveat, lawyer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am quite well acquainted with Todd Crespi and his courtroom art. He goes down to the Supreme Court at 0600 on frigid winter mornings and stands in line in order to obtain a seat to observe the cases being presented. He is popular and appreciated by the lawyers. He encourages the lawyers, providing positive support and guidance for their big day in court. I have been with him. The point that everyone is missing is that Todd is one of the greatest portrait artists in our country. He is a national treasure to be acclaimed rather than ridiculed. He has documented in beautiful, realistic paintings the history of Supreme Court arguments over the past decade. Lawyers contact him and commission his art because Todd paints such exquisite miniature portraits of them, with great likenesses,making them look proud and their most handsome. He takes many photos of the lawyers in order to paint them at their absolute best. Todd's paintings hang in many of our nation's federal courthouses, in the Justice Department, and in the offices and homes of our justices and prominent state attorney generals. His art has contributed to the documentation of the history of our great nation.