Is it art or copying?

Cranky Media Guy sent me an interesting link to an article published last December in the New York Times about the artist Richard Prince. He's described as a pioneer of "appropriation art." What this means is that Prince takes photographs of other photographer's photographs, and then displays them as his own. For instance, he had an exhibit at the Guggenheim about cowboys, which basically consisted of photographs of Marlboro ads. The guy who actually took the images for the Marlboro ads, the photographer Jim Krantz, visited the exhibit and was like, "Hang on, those are my photographs!"

In the thumbnail, you can see Krantz's original photograph on top, and Prince's rephotograph of it on the bottom.

Prince doesn't try to hide what he does. And art critics love his work. According to the NY Times: "one of the Marlboro pictures set an auction record for a photograph in 2005, selling for $1.2 million." That's good money for a photograph of someone else's photograph.

It raises the question, is this really art, or is it just mindless copying? To which the answer, as always, is that art is whatever art critics say is art (and whatever the courts allow artists to get away with).

Generally I take a very liberal attitude about copyright. I think it's necessary that people are allowed to copy works of art in order to be able to comment upon them, criticize them, or develop them into something new and different. But what Prince is doing looks more to me like glorified scrapbooking than creating original art.

It also reminds me of the scam that art museums try to use to establish perpetual copyright to the works in their collection. They take photographs of all the paintings they own that have passed into public domain. Then they claim that, while the original might be in the public domain, their picture of it is copyrighted -- and then they demand exorbitant fees from anyone who wants to reproduce it.

Advertising Art

Posted on Tue Feb 05, 2008


This is straight out of the "Just Shoot Me" episode called "Funny Girl"

Maya Gallo: I like this landscape. It has a nice Ansel Adams quality to it.
Elliot DiMauro: That's because it's a picture of an Ansel Adams. That's his thing, he takes pictures of pictures.
Maya Gallo: Maybe he's making a statement.
Elliot DiMauro: Yeah, he's saying, "I'm out of medication."

Hmm ... I wonder if the same argument would work with the RIAA?
Posted by Corwin, The Master Physicist  in  OC, CA  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  11:20 AM
Brilliant idea, Corwin! I'm not copying these songs, I'm rendering my own artistic interpretation of them... which happens to be identical to the original. If one flies in courts, the other should have to in all fairness.

Really what I don't like about the whole thing is that critics like it and say it's a different and unique work of art. I'd have no problem if they said those old Marlboro posters are art, but taking pictures of another picture isn't the same as Andy Warhol hand-painting his own Brillo boxes (and even that was pushing it.) But what Andy did was trying to celebrate overlooked beauty in our contemporary lives, this guy is just stealing someone else's work.
Posted by Crazy Ivan  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  11:45 AM
Crazy Ivan, I agree with you. This guy is adding nothing to the previous work. If he modified it in some way, emphasizing some aspect of the previous work or otherwise adding his own value to it, then an argument could be made that it is art. This is stealing.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  12:33 PM
This guy is just stealing and cheating. mad
Posted by Madmouse  in  Edinburgh  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  02:02 PM
Someone should sell pictures of his pictures of other people's pictures. That'll teach him. My Grandmother had two large mirrors that opposed each other. The infinite regression of mirrored images gave me a sense of diminished importance and humility that serves me to this day. True story
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  02:07 PM
Back in the early 90s hard rock group Faith No More did a "parody" of Lionel Richie's song Easy. It was practically a note by note recreation of the song, the band claimed that was the only proper way to ridicule it. However, I'm assuming FNM paid royalties on it which Richie was quite happy to get. It hit the charts in both the US and the UK.
Posted by Ima Fish  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  02:08 PM
I should have made xerox copies of the last Harry Potter novel and sold them for half price of the hardback.

Appropriation Authorship!
Posted by John  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  02:19 PM
As a scrapbooker, Alex...I would have to say this would be considered more like UNglorified scrapbooking...Or just plain scraplifting.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  03:23 PM
Yeah, I'd have to call this blatant stealing as well. Somebody else is going through all the work of wandering around through the woods in the cold, finding just the right angle through the trees, and so on. He's just taking a picture of the other person's work. It's not even his own artistic expression or view on things, it's somebody else's. There's nothing of Richard Prince in it. He might as well just walk into a museum, take a painting off the wall, and say that it's his artwork now. It's exactly the same as photocopying a book page by page then selling it as your own work.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  04:30 PM
It's a variation on Marcel Duchamp's gag where he bought a mass-produced urinal from a plumbing-supply store, signed it "R. Mutt," and then entered it in an art exhibition, saying that (although he had no part in making or designing the urinal) he had changed it into his own work of art by signing it and hanging it in a gallery. He did this roughly 100 years ago (I don't remember the exact date). Some years later, he abandoned making "art" on the grounds that playing chess was more interesting.

Interestingly, one of my paiting teachers used to argue that photography is not properly considered art, because it's just reproducing images that already exist. Therefore it's more of a manufacturing technology than an art. He didn't hate photography; he just didn't think it was art.
Posted by Big Gary  in  Wimberly, Texas  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  08:33 PM
Well, since Lichtenstein already got away with it (, I can't see any reason why mr. Prince shouldn't either.

But really folks, the problem is not with the fact that people copy other peoples work, but with the fact that they don't give credit to the person they copied it from ala "Prince after Krantz".
Posted by MikPal  on  Tue Feb 05, 2008  at  10:33 PM
I've had an idea which kind of parodies what this guy is doing for some time now. Maybe it's time to stop thinking about it and actually put my plan into motion. Hmmmmm.

"This guy is adding nothing to the previous work. If he modified it in some way, emphasizing some aspect of the previous work or otherwise adding his own value to it, then an argument could be made that it is art."

Yup, I agree. Warhol and Lichtenstein were making a comment about overlooked things like Brillo boxes and comic books being worthy of attention. This guy is just stealing someone else's work and "making bank" (as the kids say) off it.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  01:59 AM
This isn't the ideas I was referring to above, but hey, Alex, can I sign my name to the two copies of your most recent book which you sent me and claim it as my own work? Just asking.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  02:01 AM
The way I see it, this crosses the line once he sells the images. 'Appropriating' them in the context of the exhibition is one thing - since due credit is given it's fair use, I would argue - but once it crosses into sales it's a wholly different matter. Yes, the artist is selling his 'appropriation' concept, but he's also selling the original photographer's image.
Posted by outeast  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  02:45 AM
It's theft period when it's taken, exhibited and sold under his own name.
Posted by hulitoons  in  Abingdon, Maryland  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  03:21 AM
"Honest, Your Honor! It's not counterfeit, it's art! I can't help it if the grocery store clerk is willing to accept it as the real thing..."
Posted by Christopher  in  Warm, sunny Florida  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  05:18 AM
I'm don't ilegally download files from the internet, I pay tribute to the original author of the work by copying them.

This only goes to say what I say about art critics is still true - they've got their heads jammed so far up their own backside they wouldn't recognise true art if it sat on them.
Posted by Nona  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  06:13 AM
absolutly stealing but i dont think its much different than andy warhols works. he just coloured in other peoples stuff and hes considered one of the greats
Posted by Sensibleken  in  dublin  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  06:40 AM
Not by me, he's not.
Posted by Kathleen  in  Indiana, USA  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  07:23 AM
As I said here before, I think Warhol was a high-functioning autistic savant. Such people are known for being able to copy visual images with great facility and accuracy, but stereotypically, i.e. with little or no originality (see, for example, essays on savants in several books by Oliver Saks). They also often become fixated on one or a few offbeat subjects (e.g. trains or car parts) to the point of obsession. Warhol showed unusual interest in various mundane objects, such as soup cans, cookie jars, vacuum cleaners, and Polaroid cameras. It's also said that he wasn't a good conversationalist (although he "edited" a magazine called "Interview" for years) and hated being touched, both of which are consistent with moderate autism. That critics took his basic cluelessness for brilliance is a joke on them.

It may be that a Brillo box has a great design, but if so, more credit should go to the original designer than to Warhol for silkscreening that same design onto canvas a few hundred times.

If it were a new idea to present photographs of photographs as original art, Prince could be credited with raising interesting critical issues, but, as in the examples already cited here and many others, it's been done (and done and done) before.
Posted by Big Gary  in  Sugarland, Texas  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  08:31 AM
I'm not sure I concur entirely with your analysis of Warhol, Big G, but I think you're spot on in dismissing the worth of Prince's work on the grounds of its only raising issues which have been done to death before. That's rather a common problem in concept art!

In a way, though, that's irrelevant to the discussion here - I still think that what Prince is doing would be morally and artistically defensible (even if unoriginal to the point of worthlessness) if he went no further than exhibiting his 'appropriations' in a gallery space (ie if he was not selling 'his' work). It's that aspect of it - the large-scale profiteering - which sticks crossways in my craw.
Posted by outeast  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  08:40 AM
Not to rain on everyone's parade, but "the scam that art museums try to use" wouldn't stand up in court at all. Copyright laws only protects the original expression of an idea, not anything fixed on paper. If I take a photo of a copyrighted work, I do not now have copyright on the photo - it would not be eligible for copyright in the first place. Similarly, taking a photo of a work that has since fallen into the public domain does not restart the copyright.

Allowing people to copyright reproductions would render all copyright meaningless, since copyright violations are, by definitions, reproducing someone's copyrighted work. If this scam was legal, no publishing house or record label would ever pay royalties, since all printed copies of a manuscript or copies of a song would be copyrighted by whoever created the reproduction.

I suppose it's entirely possible that some art museum has tried to convince an artist that a photo of their work is copyrighted by the museum, but no court could support that interpretation.
Posted by Natalie  in  Minneapolis  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  09:04 AM
Wow. I am strongly against this and do not think that this is art. I believe that it is copying.. Anyone can take someone elses original picture and throw a filter on it and call it there own. That is just wrong. Thats my 2 cents.
Posted by Bill  in  PA  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  11:55 AM
I call it outright thievery by a hack no talent. Since all Prince does is steal from real artists, the only issue here is : who are the pinheads who support this thief by buying his plagiarisms?
Posted by berserkley  on  Wed Feb 06, 2008  at  10:45 PM
OK, it's peripheral, but I actually met Andy Warhol back in '72, I believe it was.

I was working as a security guard at a Rolling Stones concert in Madison Square Garden. I was standing immediately to the right of the front of the stage when I realized that Andy Warhol was next to me.

I said, "Hey, you're Andy Warhol," (totally justifying that reputation for conversational genius that I have) and he said, "Yes, I am."

Then, some idiot audience member jumped onto the stage and I had to break off my witty repartee to attempt to physically remove the guy.

Warhol was as pale-skinned and creepy-looking as he seemed in ever photograph you've ever seen of him, by the way.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Thu Feb 07, 2008  at  01:54 AM
I can see why art critics and that crowd would like it. Its an excuse for them to add another "post-" to post-modern and then try to out-art each other with psychobabble. Sheesh.
Posted by Lore  on  Sun Feb 10, 2008  at  12:55 PM
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