Friday, December 21, 2007

An Interesting Wrinkle in the Issue of Artistic Property

I was listening to Q on CBC this aft, and was particularly interested in Jian Ghomeshi's interview with photographer Jim Krantz. Krantz is primarily known as a commercial photographer and has done very well by it. This interview was about photographs he took for Phillip Morris's (in)famous Marlboro ads. Krantz is pissed off because "appropriation artist" Richard Prince has ripped off his photos, which he has displayed and sold (for over a million bucks in once case) as his own works of art.

According to this story in the NY Times, Prince's appropriations are legal, considered fair use. And as it turns out, Krantz doesn't hold copyright to the photos in question, Phillip Morris does. So this is an extra-legal issue. More of an ethical one. Prince, who refused/declined to be interviewed by either the NYT or CBC, says in an email to the NYT that he “never associated advertisements with having an author.” So, unless I'm radically misreading his position, he sees Krantz's original photos as being authorless, but his photos of those photos to be authored. Hm. No wonder he doesn't want to be interviewed (it would appear that his website has been taken down, too). Is this anything other than the self-entitled snobbery of an avant-garde phony, who thinks taking photos for money isn't art, but is okay with making piles of money himself from someone else's work?

Ghomeshi also interviewed an American philosophy prof who has written about "appropriation art." She defended Prince's case, saying that his photos aren't a case of taking something that belongs to someone else and pretending they're his. He has "re-contextualized" the images, making them bigger, putting them in a gallery, etc., and that this is intended as a critique or provocation. Fair enough; there's a lot of hay to be made analysing and criticising the use of images to sell things, particularly hyper-addictive health-destroying drugs. But what is our valiant soldier for good doing with the money he's made off of the sale of these photos? Donating them to the lung association? Buying nicorette for tobacco-addicted teens?

This one's for you black-n-white copyright advocates out there: How is Richard Prince's legal, but disrespectful and highly profitable theft of Jim Krantz's photographs better or more justifiable than Wendy Cope's fans' illegal, but admiring and unprofitable sharing of Cope's author-acknowledged poems on obscure websites? Because the law appears to say it is. Could it be that the law has some arbitrariness to it? Could it be that laws are not things empowered democratic citizens should follow blindly? Personally, I think Prince should be forced to smoke a carton of Marlies in a day. That'd learn him good. Call it cowboy justice.

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