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How Plagiarized Art Sells for Millions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Every now and again the stitching between fine art and technology looks a little more naked and pisses people off. So let’s scratch the scab and look at why.

Yesterday one of my favorite cultural bloggers, Charlie Jane Anders posted this on io9:

Click to see the post on Go read it and come back here righteously effed off.

The story discusses the fine art paintings of Glenn Brown which are little more than enlarged copies of science fiction book illustrations. In the post’s comments and on Twitter, there’s some outrage.


And I get why there’s outrage. I am not going to try and persuade you that Glenn Brown’s work has merit or that the curator speaks wisdom. But I’d like to explain how I think we have reached the point of basically plagiarized work becoming fine art worth millions. You may not know the history of dubstep to feel you hate a dubstep mix of Beethoven’s Fifth. But the story of how dubstep came to be still matters to the final piece of music.

Okay that was the last music analogy. Let’s talk about visual art and why this Brown guy is such hot stuff.


Fine Art – Fine art is a specific cultural discipline with its own jargon and conventions. It is distinct from other forms of art like illustration or tattoo design. It is an umbrella term with many subsets. For the rest of this post, when I say “fine art” I mean “visual fine art”.

Art – often when people mean “fine art” they just say “art”. This leads to all kinds of confusion about defining what “art” even means. If fine art is an umbrella term, art is a tent over the umbrella. It’s almost a useless term. Fine art and illustration and tattoo design are all art: illustration and tattoo design are not fine art. In this post I am talking about the more specific thing, fine art.

Modernism and Post-Modernism – two subsets of fine art. Fine art history is filled with movements and counter-movements that follow them. More on them as we go.

Appropriation – fine art speak for taking something you didn’t create and using it for your art.

Referencing – talking about something in fine art without actually having an opinion. It’s an illusion of being a passive, objective observer. You “reference” pro-choice/anti-abortion imagery in the media by appropriating it and let the viewer decide what it means with their own baggage.


Modernism in visual fine art displays some general hallmarks. Started around the beginning of the 20th century, it has some different movements within it, but I’ll keep this broad.

Modernism was quintessentially self-referential. The paintings were not about landscapes; the sculptures were not about human figures. Instead, the painting was about paint; the sculpture was about stone or bronze it was made from. A giant rectangular block of stone with one chisel-divot knocked out of it would be the ultimate Modernist sculpture. Sculptures were not painted, they were left in their native material, and paintings had visible brushstrokes.

It was almost a Platonic ideal, defining painting by itself.

Paintings about paint:

Clockwise from top left: I Saw the Figure 5 In Gold by Charles Demuth, 1928; Composition No. 10 by Piet Mondrian, 1939-42; Autumn Rhythm by Jackson Pollock, 1950.

Demuth’s painting is important later: remember that 5. Next we have Mondrian’s simple geometry – if I may digress, in school we watched two slide shows at high speed of Mondrian’s paintings of trees and lighthouses over the years and eventually both subjects converge in style to become this. It’s a simplification and reduction of forms until nothing remains but painted shapes. Last of course is Jackson Pollock’s paint splatters. His paintings are said to be a nightmare for conservators: unprepared canvas and house paint so thick it just cracks and falls off. Try gluing that back on in the right spot.

Modernism also kind of weirdly tended to be very macho. This was a manly type of art. Watch Karel Appel  paint “like a barbarian“. We said this all the time in school and laughed our heads off.

Along with the machismo came an idea that you couldn’t ignore the aura of the final, original work. The paintings were best seen in person to get their full effect. When you see a monumentally large painting by Rothko with opposing colours, the eye reacts to the colour boundary by making it appear to vibrate, the same effect you get looking at the boundary of bright complementary colours writ large.

To sum up:

  • Paintings about paint
  • Purity of the original work
  • Purity of the art media
  • Macho barbarians


On the Simpsons, bartender Mo once described Post-Modernism as “po-mo: weird for the sake of weird”. Actually, it’s often poking a stick in the eye of the ideals of Modernism. Most “post-” movements in art history are rebelling against the movement before them, attempting to subvert and supplant their predecessors. Artists are jerks like that.

Remember I Saw the Figure 5 In Gold by Charles Demuth, above? Check out this example of Post-Modernist jerkery by Robert Indiana:

The Figure Five by Robert Indiana, 1963.

Oh yeah, he went there: Modernists believed in the sanctity, the soul of the original artwork they made. And then Indiana comes along and does a little vrip-vrip record scratch and remixes Demuth.

More examples:

From Truisms, © Jenny Holzer. Holzer made a huge mark with a giant LED board in Times Square in the Eighties. The medium could hardly be less traditional, and the moving messages spoke directly at people

  • Modernists liked paintings about paint: so Post-Modernists use non-traditional material and found objects.
  • Modernists liked pure colour and and pure stone: so Post-Modernists often use mixed media in the same piece.

Campbell's Soup I, by Andy Warhol, 1968.

  • Modernists liked the sanctity of the original: so Post-Modernists used commercial illustrator materials like screen printing.
  • Modernists liked their art to be pure and removed from societal concerns (titles like Composition No. 10): so Post-Modernists made their art about pop culture.

This was taken to a logical extreme by Andy Warhol. Celebrities and commodities were being mass-produced on an industrial scale. So rather than make art that exalted in its own materials, Warhol used prints of mass produced goods like soup cans and Elvis. He embraced commercial culture and made it okay to put kitsch on a pedestal. And I think he would have loved what came next.


A major hallmark of imagery on the internet involves R-A-R: referencing, appropriation, and remixing. The media you view the image on is the computer. It’s the same media you can make a copy of the image from, and the same media you can use to alter it. And then share it. It’s amazing. I paint trilobites with wings on them: I’d never survive if my audience was a small village. But I can show the whole world.

Batman Lightsaber Shark © Andrew Zubko. How big is the original? Doesn't matter. This painting owned the whole world.

The tools we can use with ease online are borne out of a post-modern sensibility. Available in unlimited quantities!  And the original media, whether Platonic paint or mixed media collage doesn’t matter anymore, because it’s all pixels.

Coming back to Glenn Brown’s art, I noticed some commenters saying “it’s exactly the same” as the book covers it copies. But that’s an opinion also shaped by internet culture. There’s one major difference with Brown’s work versus the books the originals’ adorned: size. Notice how I never bother to list a painting’s dimensions on Symbiartic? Because it doesn’t matter. You’re looking at the pixel version anyway, which is altered by your screen and software. Who cares if the original Jackson Pollock above is 17 feet long?

When I show people an original drawing, they always want to know: will I make a painted version, you know, in colour? If I paint it on a 9×12″ canvas, people aren’t impressed. But if it’s 12 feet high, it becomes Impressive. It has Presence. So long as you see it in person.

That’s what Brown’s transformation is from the original work, but you can’t see it online.



In Charlie Jane Anders’ post on io9, there’s a quote where Brown says explicitly that there is no such thing as being 100% original, because we are all shaped by our culture. This is a very Post-Modernist thing to say, it’s reacting against notions of “pure” imagination and creation. And hey, it’s true.

“The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible.” –Glenn Brown

So what do *I* think of Glenn Brown’s appropriated art, referencing great SF illustrators? I could use the big put-downs from fine art school and call it commercially technical, overly kitsch and academic in its attempt at realism. I think it’s crappy fine art. But it’s crappy fine art borne aloft on millions of viral cat pictures and an internet culture of ripping and running with images without regard for the original creators. It’s the fine art we culturally deserve,  just as much as Warhol’s soup cans were fitting for the commercial-goods industrial era. Would I pay millions of dollars for it? Hellz no. But the momentum of  post-modernism’s love of referencing, appropriating and remixing is what led it to be worth that much.

You can imagine hundreds of years from now someone trying to pass off selling the world’s first lolcat image the way fingerbones-of-Saints relics are coveted in churches today.

Glenn Brown’s ripped-off science-fiction cover is worth millions because we spend all day reblogging pictures of Firefly-My Little Pony mash-ups on Tumblr without giving a shit about the mash-up artist’s name (or even deeper, the names of the artists who designed the Firefly cast’s costumes or the My Little Pony characters in the first place).

Fine art culture is holding up a big expensive mirror at you and internet culture right now.


Image sources:
Top image: screencap of io9 featuring work by Chris Foss and Glenn Brown.
Modernism: Demuth; Mondrian; Pollock
Post-Modernism: Indiana; Holzer; Warhol
Internetz: Zubko

*Endnote: From time to time here on Symbiartic, I decry the lack of creator attribution on images that occurs on aggregate sites. But I’d like to applaud the editors and writers at io9 who in my experience consistently respect creators. You all rock.

Also thanks to Karen James and all those on Twitter who encouraged me to write this.

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. LaughingMantis 11:42 am 01/9/2014

    MY main problem with Brown’s work is in how he presents it. At least from my reading, it seems like he doesn’t really put much (if any) effort into dispelling the notion that these are his works and his ideas. Really? Straight up copying another artists work without giving any credit? That’s just ridiculous and dishonest. For example, in one of the works in the i09 article he gave his painting a completely “original” title (He named his copy of “Floating Cities” as “Bocklin’s Tomb” instead of something like “An Homage to ____” or a “based on” subtitle or something). This seems like straight up plagiarism to me and an obvious attempt to hide the truth of the paintings origins.

    I don’t think there is anything inherently “unartistic” in recreating others’ work. Realism by nature inherently copies from the real world, other works, or photography (which is itself often other people’s art). But if I am going to make a drawing or painting that is pretty much a recreation of someone else’s photograph (which I do if I have no way of taking my own photo of a specific animal for example), I 1) get permission from the photographer and 2) give ample credit.

    As for the monetary worth of his paintings – meh. I don’t care. I find it utterly ridiculous, personally. But who cares what some idiot is willing to spend.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 1:05 pm 01/9/2014

    Update: Charlie Jane Anders provides further interesting background on Glenn Brown’s art career, and how some of this all went down.

    See: How to Understand Why An Awesome Book Cover Became Expensive Fine Art.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Uncle.Al 1:36 pm 01/9/2014

    Batman employing a red light saber is particularly evocative. The work is in each part and as a connected whole utterly sexually obscene, for it denigrates gays – no claspers. (A great white shark’s eyes roll back when it gapes its mouth. Perhaps this one is spiralized, re “Moby Dick.”)

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  4. 4. oiojes 1:36 pm 01/9/2014

    Not quite. You’ve hit the nail on the head regarding why such art exists. However, if it’s built on internet mashups– which exist in part because we can get them essentially for free– where does the value and monetization come from?

    People spend millions of dollars for art for one or both of two reasons: 1) they’re passionate about it and 2) it’s an investment.

    Given your reasoning it’s hard to believe anyone would be passionate about this to the tune of 5 million dollars. And given the ephemeral nature of this sort of art why would it be an investment?

    I argue you have not yet answered your question.

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  5. 5. kevin_neilson 1:44 pm 01/9/2014

    No mention of Roy Lichtenstein? He directly copied panels from comic books and these now sell for millions. “I can see the whole room…and there’s nobody in it!” and “Ohhh, alright” have both sold in the $40m range.

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  6. 6. LaughingMantis 3:35 pm 01/9/2014

    I stand corrected on Brown not getting Foss’ permission (according to the update article). It still seems like he should give more credit in making it clear that his work is a copy.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Glendon Mellow 3:39 pm 01/9/2014

    Uncle Al, that’s some crazy performance art you got going on there.

    oiojes: interesting. I don’t think the millions of dollars are for essentially buying an internet meme: the whole transaction is still happening in the fine art world which has it’s own codified practices. Similar to the Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles – it’s not equivalent of a cardboard standee, it’s the fine art equivalent of a cardboard standee. Which makes a difference. Specifically, the presence of the large scale painting as I tried to describe it.

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  8. 8. Glendon Mellow 3:45 pm 01/9/2014

    Kevin, I considered both Lichtenstein and Duchamp for this post – both great examples.

    Laughing Mantis – I couldn’t agree more. But “After Roy Foss” is a common thing to do in art titles. The Tomb of Böcklin by Ferdinand Keller is sometimes listed that way. ( Original here.)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Brimblecombe 6:35 pm 01/9/2014

    Glendon, a very interesting discussion. An artist using appropriation to defend accusations of copying is opening up a can of worms.

    Appropriation is actually quite a sophisticated way to re-articulate meaning rather than simply a justification for copying another artist’s imagery. For me appropriation is a conscious and deliberate activity that in the first instance [ie: before the artwork is created] is stimulated and then driven by intellectual catalysts which inform the artist’s choices of materials, subject, positioning and even how the work is ultimately exhibited etc. Other issues such as aesthetic or creative ones are mediated by the intellectual activity of repositioning, re-contextualising another artist’s or creator’s work or aspects of the work. It needs to be more than just simply clever or interesting…let’s blame the slippery slope of superficiality that post-modernism succumbed to!

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

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  10. 10. cliffhaynes 7:15 pm 01/9/2014

    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space
    space space space space space space space space space

    This is not original, it is a copy, or reproduction.
    Just as both a book and it’s cover are. Collectable books are normally worth more with their covers. There is with Fine Art, painting in particular; the kudos of the authority of the artist, the brand label. It may be that scale makes it appear more important, it shows that the owner can afford the wall to display it on. As to where originality and creativity lie?

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  11. 11. hankroberts 10:20 pm 01/9/2014

    And where is J.G. Ballard now that we need him?

    Link to this
  12. 12. optimistic painter 5:42 am 01/10/2014

    Really well explained Glendon. Have spent much time on the web educating people about this stuff and now I can send them here! To be completely honest I think Post Modernism has done its dash and internet sharing culture has little to do with it. Fine artists likely claim internet sharing as inspired by post modernism, but really it’s about visual commerce and convenience(and fine art loves to feel important, so it;s dying to take credit for anything). Post modernism seems irrelevant, it’s been doing what it does for at least 30 years and not saying anything new. It’s a convenient space for people with no technical skill though, for whom earlier art movements and illustration is intimidating.(how cynical am I!?!?!)

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  13. 13. Glendon Mellow 1:07 pm 01/10/2014

    Thank you Kathryn! I like this in particular: “It needs to be more than just simply clever or interesting” with the caveat that it should be more than simply clever or interesting to be considered good.

    Cliff, something is wrong with your space bar. ;-P

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  14. 14. Robnonstop 7:17 pm 01/10/2014

    The article explains why art is worthless to us in the internet age.

    The article doesn’t explain why people are willing to spend millions of dollars for something that could easily be produced again and again, unlike an original which has to be composed, refined etc.

    The article explains the opposite situation.

    My suspicion is that it is rather irrelevant what’s on the canvas to the buyer. The art critic seen in the YouTube video explaining the value in this piece, sees it as a chance to demonstrate his knowledge, education, eloquence.

    As a side effect he gives enormous value to something almost worthless. Yes it is a large piece but one could cheaply produce hundreds of equally large and equally unoriginal copies from the same original.

    The buyer gambles by investing in this very piece because the hype machine, of which the the art critic is the hype man, declares this specific unit to be valuable. He or she then quickly resells it, hopefully for a higher price.

    Wherever the cash for their initial purchase came from, now the money is clean and they got rid of the piece that was been completely worthless and irrelevant to them from the start.

    Result: The art critic is proud of himself. The criminal avoided paying taxes. The new owner is already looking for someone to sell it to and if nobody wants it, some museum will pay for it with money from charities and taxes, proclaiming they made a bargain.

    Nobody cares about what is on the canvas and why. The quality of the original cover sadly plays no role in the piece’s value creation either. We stare at the situation and try to make sense of it. They don’t.

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  15. 15. PaleoStu 11:55 am 01/11/2014

    Ah post-modernism, the fad that just keeps on giving nothing of any consequence. If it ever had any real tenets, they were abandoned a long time ago. Great post, and interesting replies too.

    I actually don’t think we get the art we deserve, but the buyers do. Art has become so monetised that in my most humble opinion a fair amount of high-profile art is little more than a very expensive commodity to be traded by very rich people and is produced for that purpose. Much contemporary art displayed in shows in commercial and private galleries is vacuous, derivative and apart from trying to be cleverly cynical, almost valueless as art for individuals to engage with. Brown’s work is typical of this trend towards clever-dick ‘post-modernist’ irony that is in fact simply dull. It’s a response to the demands of the market, and the artist is simply providing a service.

    Damien Hirst and Banksy, amongst others are the demi-gods of this elite industry, artists held up as shining examples of modern art by an media that rarely leaves the sanctuary of the capital and is myopic in its appreciation of what art actually is, plus is deeply in thrall to consumerism, the real driving force of art such as Brown’s. Even if Banksy is having a joke at all our expenses, he’s making a few quid to say the least. Duchamp would be laughing himself hoarse were he alive today.

    Of course, ordinary people are far too bright to fall for all this nonsense, and public galleries across the globe are stuffed to the gunnels with people going to look at art which means something more than a guaranteed return in ten years time. Leaving aside the art commissioned to flatter the egos of a ruling elite that makes up much pre-19th century art, even art that was created on commission (such as Rothko’s Seagram murals, which he refused to hand over when finished) retains that elusive quality that elevates it from being simply paint on canvas to something more subtle, insightful and wonderful, a condition that Hirst’s work will never achieve.

    As for the role the internet plays in all this, in the grand scheme of things it’s irrelevant. There is no substitute for standing in front of an actual piece of art and being overwhelmed by an emotion it evokes in a person; it’s like seeing a band live and listening to their records, suddenly you ‘get it’ and life is never quite the same. I don’t believe we have become inured to good art (whatever that is), I think we’re just not educating people about how to decided for themselves what is good and what is not.

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  16. 16. Ewkuns 10:34 pm 01/12/2014

    At first I was outraged as well, then I started to dig a little deeper to discover that Glenn Brown is not a plagiarist, but an original artist, who usually changes his source/inspiration imagery to the point where it’s nothing at all like the original. I wrote a blog post about this, with example pics here:

    When artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, whose work sells for ten times as much as Browns’, have been sued multiple times each for copyright infringement, and don’t even touch most of their own work because they have teams of artists producing it for them, Brown is a saint. He actually makes his own enormously difficult paintings, which one would discover if one did a bit more research before hurling stones.

    Just type his name in Google and see what comes up. Or check out my blog post, where I’ve done the work for you. Then, you can see you went after the wrong guy, and let the real culprits get away with murder.

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  17. 17. Glendon Mellow 4:12 pm 01/14/2014

    #14 Robnonstop; of course you are correct there are many factors within the fine art world that drive sales, just like there is in labels promoting Justin Bieber over Tilly and the Wall. That’s the biz side. Not irrelevant to my article, but not my focus here.

    #15 Paleostu: “I actually don’t think we get the art we deserve, but the buyers do.” <– Love this! After all, they have to put it on their walls.

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  18. 18. Glendon Mellow 4:16 pm 01/14/2014

    #16 Ewkuns: I read through your post, and you have a ton of great historical examples of appropriation. I considered including Lichtenstein and Koons in this post myself.

    However, I’m not sure you have fully read my post above: I agree with you painting by your own hand and increasing the size of another image does lend some change to the impact of a painting seen first hand. Read the bit under Batman Lightsaber Shark.

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  19. 19. CHBaker 12:29 pm 01/17/2014

    I like this conclusion:
    “Fine art culture is holding up a big expensive mirror at you and internet culture right now.”

    However, I wish you would research a little more, particularly in the case of Demuth and Indiana. Demuth’s “Figure 5″ is a portrait of William Carlos Williams and is not “about paint,” it is more about literature and portraiture. Demuth was only worried about his media when it was oil versus watercolor because he could fuss with oil more and is far removed contextually from Pollock. Barbara Haskell is a good place to start if you want to know about him and this painting.

    Indiana’s “Figure 5″ is a lot more than “a little vrip-vrip record scratch” of Demuth… in many ways it’s another portrait – of Demuth, and America of the time. I suggest Susan Elizabeth Ryan’s “Robert Indiana: Figures of Speech” for more on that and other works in which Indiana appropriated that five.

    These are just really shallow interpretations in your referencing of these artists’ works.

    Yes, the “mirror at culture” you suggest here can coincide when comparing these works, but the context matters. Cut-and-paste is a lot different post-computer and certainly post-internet and it can be argued that “appropriation” has evolved in meaning post Post-Modernism.

    And then there’s that supposition involving under the sun and nothing new.

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  20. 20. featherlight53 1:34 am 03/15/2014

    Why hasn’t anyone brought up the fact that the painting might just be interesting/powerful in-person? Most people are speculating about what it’s like in person, but based on the scale, and the fact that it is physically a painting (and not a print) it likely has a presence – probably an overwhelming one.

    Part of what Brown has done is taken something which was once a mundane book cover, and made it into a spectacular, visceral experience. That’s worth something at least.

    As far as the price goes – this is an early work by Glenn Brown – who is now a famous artist. Artist’s early work usually sells for much higher prices – that’s just the way the art world works. This happens regardless of how “good” the work is, and is very evident as most artists do not produce their masterpieces in their early years. Yes the price is inflated – but that does not mean the work has no merit.

    Personally, I like his current work much better – and I think he does too (which is why he is making it of course), but this painting documents a milestone on the path that a great artist took towards developing their craft.

    I actually disagree with the read of: “Fine art culture is holding up a big expensive mirror at you and internet culture right now.” I think this might be a really interesting personal perspective, but honestly, I think Brown just wanted to make a big, detailed, bright painting – and Foss’s book cover was an easy ticket to do this. Keep in mind that this painting was created in 1996 – around a time when the internet was still a baby. I’m not sure meme’s even existed at that time. It’s very unlikely that it is intended to critique our internet culture.

    BUT, I will say, that doesn’t mean it has no relationship to it. Culture is circular, and artists from different genres and mediums often end up using similar techniques, and borrowing from each other – whether they do it deliberately or not. Brown appropriates images and paints them because they are convenient, and this reflects on the DeviantArt artist who does the same. Most of what this says is just that these two artists lived in a similar time – and came to a similar logical conclusion as to how they make their art.

    The difference between the two? Why does Brown’s work sell for millions while that Batman picture above probably made no money at all? That’s easy – Glenn Brown is famous. Just like in the movie industry, people will pay big money to have famous actors in their movies – and the more famous, the higher their salary.

    That’s really all their is to it.

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  21. 21. featherlight53 7:59 pm 03/15/2014

    That last sentence should be:

    “That’s really all *there* is to it.”

    Sorry it was late. :P

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  22. 22. Glendon Mellow 5:49 am 05/16/2014

    Note to self: search and replace Glenn Brown with Jeff Koons and book cover with Popeye. Resell blog post for millions.

    See here for reference.

    Link to this

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