We've written about the somewhat horrifying ruling
in the Richard Prince appropriation art case before. If you haven't been following the details, Prince is an appropriation artist, who takes works he finds elsewhere, and modifies and transforms them into different pieces of artwork. The law around this kind of artwork is tragically murky -- with some cases ruling that appropriation art is fair use, and some ruling otherwise. The Prince case got extra attention for a few reasons. One is that Prince is considered one of the biggest name artists around, and his works can sell for millions of dollars. The second is that this case also implicated the gallery that showed Prince's work, raising some serious questions about secondary liability for galleries, and whether or not galleries themselves must become copyright experts. Finally, the ruling suggested that Prince's artwork -- valued at a few million dollars -- might need to be destroyed.
This is the truly horrifying part. Whether or not you appreciate the work, clearly some people do like it.
Personally, it's not my taste, but I'll be damned if my own personal taste (or any other third party's personal taste) should ever be the determining factor in whether or not any particular piece of art should exist.
And, yet, that's what we have here. While the case is on appeal, the NY Times recently ran a pretty good overview of the case
, and highlighted why the art world is paying so much attention to it. Especially for a younger generation, building new works of art on works that came before seems totally natural. It's a good thing:
“For the generation that I spend my days with, there’s not even any ideological baggage that comes along with appropriation anymore,” said Stephen Frailey, an artist whose work has used appropriation and who runs the undergraduate photography program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “They feel that once an image goes into a shared digital space, it’s just there for them to change, to elaborate on, to add to, to improve, to do whatever they want with it. They don’t see this as a subversive act. They see the Internet as a collaborative community and everything on it as raw material.”
At the same time the tools for mining and remolding those mountains of raw material are proliferating. In November a developer and a designer introduced an iPad art app called Mixel, aimed at amateurs but certain to end up in artists’ studios. It allows users to grab images from the Web or elsewhere, collage them almost effortlessly and then pass them around, social media style, for appreciation or re-mixing.
One of its creators, Khoi Vinh, a former design director of NYTimes.com, has been surprisingly frank when asked about the tsunami of copyright problems such an idea stirs up. “This is really a case of, you have to do it, try it and ask for forgiveness later,” he said to an interviewer. “Otherwise it would never get out there.”
What you begin to realize is that, like the wider copyright battle, to some extent this is a "generational" thing. And I don't mean that totally as an "age" thing. There are plenty of "older" people who understand these issues (or who create works via appropriation), just as there are some younger copyright maximalists. But, in general, this does seem like a generational thing, where you have generations of people who simply find the process of building on the works of art completely natural, and those who don't.
But the part that really troubles me about these discussions is a rather simple point about fair use: if the new work does not, in any way, harm the original work, it's seems positively insane to me to think that it shouldn't be seen as fair use. This point is made by Prince's lawyers:
Joshua Schiller, Mr. Prince’s appeals lawyer from the firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said the boundary is whether a new work of art results from the borrowing. And he argued that it was clear that Mr. Prince had made parts of Mr. Cariou’s pictures into distinctive Richard Prince works, not just copy them to pass them off as his own and deprive Mr. Cariou of his livelihood. Whether the work was successful and whether Mr. Prince’s intentions were interesting or even explainable can be left to debate. But the primary intention was to create a work of art, Mr. Schiller said, and that is the kind of creativity the law seeks to encourage.
“This is not piracy,” he said. “These are not handbags.”
I'm still waiting for someone (anyone!) to give me a compelling explanation for why it's a problem in any way, shape or form, if the new work does nothing to take away from the old work. In fact, in cases like this, it's easy to argue that the new work, since it came from a much more well known and successful artist, likely drew much more attention to the original work, thereby raising that artist's profile and stature.