The Prince and the Pauper
The greater art world is all atwitter about the recent copyright infringement ruling against painter and appropriation artist Richard Prince and the Gagosian Gallery. The ruling, which came in March 18th, found artist Richard Prince, gallerist Larry Gagosian and publisher Rizzoli guilty of copyright infringement. The issue stems from a series of paintings and works on paper that Prince produced under the title the Canal Zone. Prince gainfully admitted to incorporating 41 images of Patrick Cariou’s photographic documentation of Rastafarian culture on the island of Jamaica published as a book in 2000 by Powerhouse books under the title Rasta, Yes. Cariou initiated a suit in December of 2008.
The mood out there ranges from unabashed schadenfreude to apologetic support. One thing is for certain, with the axiom of “There is no such thing as bad press” firmly in place, Prince has exalted his status of infant terrible to new heights. This, is turn, will only further cement his reputation and price point. In this Manhattan melodrama, fueled by emotion, braggadocio and hurt feelings, Prince has acted as a lightning rod and in the landscape of inflated prices and reputations, lightning doesn’t burn, it spotlights.
Let’s make a few things clear, I have not been a fan of Richard Prince. I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that his particular brand of appropriation art was sophomoric at best, infantile at worst. That having been said, I’m often in a curious state of awe when an artist makes me hate their work. There’s something undeniably going on to elicit such negative emotion. Really bad work withers with forgetability. Disinterest is the greatest bullet to the back of the head of any artistic output. While Richard Prince has yet to win my heart, intellectually or aesthetically, he nonetheless merits attention as an artist with his finger on the pulse of a moment.
A few observations must be made that have failed to surface in the current dialogue.
1.) Patrick Cariou is hardly an artist to either love or hate. The ‘whatever” of the aforementioned disinterest pretty much sums up his artistic offerings. He’s a maker of coffee table books published by PowerHouse Books. These books are handsomely made but serve more as window dressing when a stylist populates a home with a few tomes when shooting a photo spread for InStyle Magazine. Or maybe the books belong in the inventory of a Real Estate staging company.
2.) I’m shocked to find myself agreeing with Charlie Finch of Artnet who describes the circumstance where a legal judge becomes the arbiter of aesthetic taste as Kafkaesque. But this points to the disconnect between the pursuits of the isolated artistic few and the legal system of the country. Mr. Prince feels that the laws don’t apply to him and argued the fair use aspect of copyright law. From the documentation his defense was rather flip and downright cocky. My suspicions are that his egotistic and waxed demeanor when it came to “defending” he actions went a long way to eliciting the summary judgment handed down by Judge Deborah Batts.
3.) Steal from the well known! As photographs of the Canal Zone series amply document, Cariou was hardly Prince’s sole source material. Countless images by Richard Kern, a photographer of sort of titillating retro porn, adorn Prince’s compositions as much if not more than Cariou’s photographs. Kern wasn’t suing. Kern, has a bigger career in Europe and is published by Taschen, Charta and Fiction among others.
4.) In the course of the suit, Cariou pleaded that his career was irreversibly damaged by Prince’s use of his photographs. This argument was made by stating that an exhibition was planned with a gallerist who, upon seeing the Prince show, cancelled Cariou’s exhibition stating that a.) she didn’t want to do a show “that capitalized of Prince’s success and notoriety” and b.) she didn’t want to exhibit work that had been “done already at another gallery.” This is ludicrous on so many levels. But let’s dig a little deeper. The “Gallerist” in question is Christiane Celle. Who, you may ask…is Christiane Celle? Well she’s no power broker in the fine art photography market. Ms. Celle is the founder of a women’s clothing boutique called Calypso. She sold the $60 million company and opened up a photography bookshop in Soho called Clic in 2008, which recently expanded to East Hampton and St. Barts.
Having worked in the fine art photography market for over a dozen years I can tell you that Cariou is not seen as a commodity. And the earnings potential is just that, potential but potential is hypothetical! The hypothetical must be met with equally hypothetical reputation, talent and staying power.
So we have a double David and Goliath scenario. Not only does the court equate Richard Prince with Patrick Cariou, but it further equates Larry Gagosian with Christiane Celle. As far as the legal system, this level playing field is admirable and appropriate. But the statement of financial “damage” is disingenuous at best.
5.) Larry is not hurting. In a recent profile in the Wall Street Journal, Larry Gagosian’s multi-national empire was dizzyingly sketched out as 1 billion dollar a year sales behemoth. This means that Richard Prince’s 10 million dollar sales for the Canal Zone series represents a scant one percent of his sales. He can afford the gaffe of this suit and as I mentioned before, it’s entirely likely that Prince’s stock will only rise due to the notoriety.
6.) As I have researched this case and the legal precedents concerning fair use according to the law I have come to two conclusions: 1.) US District Judge Deborah Batts severely reimagined the aspects of transformative use of material including a heavy weighing of commentary on the original material used. While commentary is part of the law, it is not the line in the sand over which transgression is assessed.
7.) Motivations and judgment were largely financial. This statement might be filed under “Duh,” were it not for a strange reverse discrimination. Collage and visual reimagining happens mostly in the realm of works on paper, etudes if you will. The sampling is often used as a visual vocabulary that acts as texture and rhythm. Prince’s work, done in large scale and sold for millions of dollars was a target for Cariou more for their financial stature than for aesthetic infringment. As I previously stated, Judge Betts did her best to level the playing field in certain aspects but failed miserably on other fronts. One need only to see the slightly suspicious quotation marks around the term appropriation artist in the legal judgment (seen here in a PDF on page 3 cariou-prince.) The financial vagaries of the art world simply can’t be arbitrated in a court of law.
8.) The psychic landscape of scarcity that copyright laws impose on the art world is bankrupt. Creative and financial breakthroughs come from a paradigm of limitlessness.
I have come to this conclusion over time. Perhaps one of the greatest epiphanies came in the form of a TED Talk given by Johanna Blakley on the fashion industry’s innovation and financial success in the face of lack of copyright restrictions. It is absolutely riveting and a real paradigm shifter.
In the presentation Ms. Blakley also makes an interesting point that neither recipes nor jokes fall under the protection of Copyright laws. Which then got me to thinking whether Richard Prince might actually be an evil genius for one of the his signature series are paintings of jokes. Food for thought!
-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, April 2011
Update January 2011: The NYT posted this long article detailing the the case and the appeals process as well as the state of appropriation in general recently. Do check it out as the dialogue and debate seems to continue unabated.
In the course of writing this I’ve assembled some fun links that I provide for you here