(re)Working It

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A work of art is not just created but recreated. They say nothing is new. It might not be enough for the frustrated artist in his studio, walls heavy with sketches of abandoned projects caving in around him, but it also must be some small repose to know that all attempts at true originality are futile, anyway. No work is truly new, but no work is truly ever finished, either. Appropriation has revived many an artwork: collage, covers, and homages are all new works born of other works. What remains unresolved are the limits of artistic license, the point at which one’s work is bled out for the sake of the new one.

It’s nothing new, the idea that nothing is new, at least to artists working today. The Dadaists and Surrealists led the way, clearing the road for Andy Warhol to borrow from Madison Avenue and Americana, Sherri Levine from Walker Evans, Cory Arcangel from YouTube. Bands cover other bands’ songs regularly. Filmmakers borrow from the previous generations of filmmakers routinely. When called out on it, they can simply call their film an homage, case closed.

As the contemporary art market continues to expand at an exhaustive rate, established artists attend to their relationships with collectors and their works’ reputations as blue- chip investments as much as they do their critical reception.  It comes as no surprise, then, that all this has resulted in a quick expansion of intellectual property and art law. As the market grows, artists have more interest than ever to protect their “brand”.

Recently, Janine “Jah Jah” Gordon, a young photographer and member of the downtown art scene, sued superstar photographer Ryan McGinley over alleged intellectual property violations.  She claims that he has blatantly stolen her style, including her compositions and photographic processes, choices of subject matter, even her subjects’ expressions and poses.  A couple of years ago, Richard Prince encountered similar trouble:  he was sued over “Canal Zone”, a series  of works which lift images from photographer Patrick Cariou’s book Yes Rasta. Both cases present a lesser- known artist suing a a more established artist for intellectual property theft, a charge perhaps more muddied in contemporary art practice than in other IP cases.

What validates one artist’s claims of intellectual property theft over another’s if appropriation is a distinct category of contemporary art practice, anyway? There must be a reason why appropriation is less offensive to creative spirit than others. What is it specifically that makes the bad cases theft, while the good ones intimate just why the original work was so important and valuable in the first place?

Whether intentional or not, McGinley’s advertisements shot for Levi’s are almost indistinguishable from that of Gordon’s earlier work, issued before McGinley started shooting his ad campaign. Gordon feels she was discredited from her intellectual and creative work simply because she is less famous. The Levi’s campaign utilizes many of McGinley’s trademarks- carefree youth, bold color, simplicity.  Does a simple style mean that McGinley is somehow off the hook, the fact that he is easily copied a suggestion that he could just as easily copy others without consequence?

It would be incorrect to assume that ideas shared among peers constitutes theft; young artists often find reassurance and consolation in the work of their peers. Ryan McGinley and Jah Jah Gordon were of overlapping social circles, visiting the same galleries and museum shows, studios of mutual artist friends, gallerists who may have been interested in both of their work.  It is likely that they have entertained studio visits from the same critics and curators, maybe received similar feedback, and perhaps had been suggested similar artists to serve as inspiration. It’s always possible that dealer Chris Perez, a mutual close friend of both artists, could have cross- pollinated ideas between the two artists. Ryan McGinley, in particular, has modeled much of his early work on that downtown darling of a previous generation, Nan Goldin.  It should come as no surprise, then, that McGinley’s work may be quite similar to Jah Jah Gordon’s.

Perhaps it is incidental, or accidental. Perhaps Mr. McGinley honestly didn’t have anyone else’s work on his mind when shooting and editing his ad campaign; maybe it seemed familiar yet groundbreaking, as much successful advertising does. After all, Gordon’s work was familiar, but it may just as easily have been produced by a number of his peers or friends of friends.

There is work that is suspiciously similar to that of another artist’s, and then there is direct appropriation, making the true meaning of the new artwork impossible to understand unless one is familiar with the original. The second would not be able to exist without establishment of the first.  Richard Prince has practiced this for decades, using an image as a first draft, adding notes, and submitting the finished work as a product of his own. Gaining notoriety in the 1970s for his “re-photographs”, or photographs of photographs, his photos of cigarette advertisements, and later, “Canal Zone”. “Canal Zone” presents prints of Patrick Cariou’s portraits from Yes Rasta, affixing them to canvas, and adding layers of paint, distorting the subjects’ facial features and context.  Prince and his extensive team of lawyers defended his right to deface the portraits vigorously, claiming that since Mr. Cariou’s work is mainly documentary in nature, he has the right to exercise his creative license over them. They claimed that Cariou’s work would not have ever become famous had it not been for Prince’s appropriation. Prince can claim that his canvases are still valuable without the inclusion of any other artist’s images; they are valuable simply because they are his, while Cariou’s work remains as valuable in the marketplace as before his reinterpretation- that is, not very. Prince ultimately lost his case.

Richard Prince has done similar “reworkings” of Willem de Kooning’s work, as well, cutting out images from his prints and superimposing them onto pornographic material.  While it is questionable whether his scribbles and paint drippings have done anything to improve the artistic merit of either Patrick Cariou or Willem de Kooning, the question remains whether Richard Prince retains the right to effectively destroy the artistic vision and intellectual work of another artist for his own advantage. If Prince’s “Canal Zone” prints have cost Cariou opportunities to exhibit and sell his work as he has claimed, shouldn’t Prince be held liable? It’s essentially slander; Prince’s work is hardly transformative to the original in any way, even a detrimental way.

It’s not exactly stealing, as an image is out there for just about anyone to reuse. The value of the original work is not compromised by its reuse- if Richard Prince is to be believed, the second life of a work may be the only thing to give the original any value or attention at all. But the integrity of the second must respect the work of the first.  Yes Rasta was released by powerHouse Books more than a decade ago. Does Prince deserve credit for reviving the book’s sales and media attention, or does he owe something to Cariou? He destroyed many of those images that Cariou went to great personal and professional lengths to capture, regardless of whether or not those images were ultimately intended for anthropological or artistic use.

These lawsuits may be discouraging to the young artist- perhaps the direction of art is dictated by the market, so the artist (or gallerist behind them) who can afford expensive lawyers must therefore make the most valuable work. Richard Prince is just defending his brand, which is worth many millions at this point. We can assume that he would just as quickly prosecute anyone who might circulate t- shirts with images of his own canvases. Everything is derivative. Yes, evolution (even on a single work) is inevitable, desirable, even. But the first step is equally important, even when it’s wrong. Jah Jah Gordon and Patrick Cariou knew that- that’s why they didn’t take short cuts.

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