CultureGrrl has an intriguing post (Headline: Chicago’s Faux “Faun” Inspires Faux Journalism) updating the fake Gauguin brouhaha that spurred a slight tangent from me Wednesday. Thank you, CultureGrrl, for kicking the horse into another tangent — the artistic territory occupied by Richard Prince, who has made his way largely, though not exclusively, by appropriating the work of others. You can see and learn more when the Guggenheim retrospective of Prince, Spiritual America, comes to the Walker, in March 2008.
A Getty Images blog post today links to a similar controversy, brought to light last week by the New York Times, involving Prince and the original source of his Marlboro Man images, commercial photographer Jim Krantz, to ask “Is Appropriation Appropriate?” Prince doesn’t pass off others’ work as his own — indeed, the act of appropriation is integral to his artistic motives — but you could make that case for musicians who sample beats and riffs created by others. In music, such appropriation is either credited/licensed/paid or prosecuted. Prince has settled at least one lawsuit. So has Robert Rauschenberg, who committed to using only his own photographs in his collages after having to settle a suit over photos he appropriated. The neo-pop artist Jeff Koons appealed his 1988 String of Puppies copyright-infringement case all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost. (The Times wrote that Prince’s “borrowings seem to be protected by fair use exceptions to copyright law.”)
These “exceptions” (at least as much as you can discern them in a 2005 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit) seem to discriminate between mediums. Why? The answer is likely as simple, and obvious, as money. The Times article suggests people didn’t pay much attention to Prince’s methods until his work began selling at auction for six and seven figures — financial territory reached every year by scores of musical artists — whereas probing the nooks and crannies of popular music for illicit appropriation is like panning for gold. Even Spinal Tap thought it had a case.
Prince, Koons and other artists inspired by the work of others would likely applaud movements to overturn the appellate ruling and loosen “fair use” laws. So would the public at large. No longer would you gnash your teeth over someone else’s creation and wonder “Now why didn’t I think of that?” We’re moving closer to the day a good idea never has to die.