Why Do Some People Have A Mythical Standard Of 'Newness' To Determine What Qualifies As Art?
from the what's-really-new? dept
In our recent discussion on the ruling against Richard Prince, saying that his appropriation art is infringing and should be destroyed, I’m seeing a somewhat disturbing response from people who disagree with Prince: they seem to have some mythological idea that for any artwork to matter, it must somehow be “new.” I have trouble with this standard for a few separate reasons:
What determines what is really new?
If you look at the history of music, for example, things like the invention of soul music really involved a very close copy of works that had come before. There was very little new. Ditto with all kinds of rock music. Led Zeppelin is famous for nearly every famous song they had being a near direct copy from someone else. The changes made were minor, but created massive successes — showing that people seemed to really like these “copies,” even if there was very little new in them. It seems, to me, that clearly something important was “new” in that people liked the copies much more than the originals.
One of the complaints in the discussion on Prince’s work is that he “didn’t spend much time” in creating his artwork, since he basically started with Cariou’s work, tinted it, and added a few minor adjustments. Perhaps that’s true, but it seems likely that he spent more time than Cariou did in taking the photograph in the first place. I’m not — as some accused — arguing that Cariou’s work isn’t art. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that the time involved is not a statement of what is and what is not artwork either. After all, Carious quite literally “copied” the scene that he photographed. He gets a copyright on it because of a few creative choices, but these are minor: where to position himself, how to frame the photograph etc. But are those really all that different from Prince’s decisions of “how to tint, what to change, what to add?” I can’t see how one is art and the other is a copy. It seems like both are art to me, even if I’m not personally impressed by Prince’s work.
Does it really matter if the copy isn’t really new?
And here’s the bigger point. If people really enjoy those works, why are we so upset that they’re copies with minor changes? Ray Charles had success with “I’ve Got a Woman,” despite it really being the same basic song as the Harold Bailey Gospel Singers, called “I’ve Got a Savior,” with just moderately changed lyrics, and a little more pizazz in the music. Led Zeppelin’s most classic hit, “Stairway to Heaven,” is a pretty close copy the song “Taurus,” by Spirit. And Richard Prince’s paintings involve just moderate changes to Patrick Cariou’s photographs. And, yet, in all three cases, the markets seemed to value the latter versions more. Doesn’t that suggest that, even if these newer works are “mostly” copies, that they provide significant value in the marketplace?
Why does it matter that they’re not “new” by some subjective standard?
If the world really felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with these copies with minor changes, then wouldn’t they have rejected the market for them? Would the world have been a better place if we didn’t have “I’ve Got a Woman,” but were just left with “I’ve Got a Savior,” a song so hard to find these days that James Boyle could only find a single copy in existence when he wrote his book which told the story of the song?
Isn’t the world actually better off that we have these “copies with marginal changes”? Why do people feel the need to complain about them?