Thieving Artist

I’ve written before about Richard Prince and his appropriation of photographs and only return to the case as I’ve just read a post in The Art NewspaperRichard Prince defends reuse of others’ photographs,  by Laura Gilbert which states the defence he is offering to  a federal court in Manhattan about his use for profit of the works of two photographers, Donald Graham‘s photograph, Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, and Eric McNatt’s photograph of the musician and artist Kim Gordon. It is a rather longer statement, apparently 15 pages, than his original (and soon deleted) tweet: “Phony fraud photographers keep mooching me. Why? I changed the game. &their wizardry professorial boredom keeps coughing up a vick’sVAPOrub.”

Prince argues that by taking the images exactly as they were on Instagram, but enlarging them and adding his comment to put them on the gallery wall and sell them at high prices he was somehow producing a new original work of art, commenting on the process of communication involved in using social media – and Instagram in particular. As Gilbert writes, his approach is supported byome pretty serious names in the art world, with statements from  a museum director, curator and well-known art dealer to the court. All of course people who profit in some way or other from artists like Prince.

Prince of course profits from all the publicity this and other court cases give him, with many articles -including this one – in newspapers, magazines and blogs significantly raising his profile as an artist, and thus the prices and sales of his work.

Perhaps the photographers whose work has been stolen might think about reclaiming it by appropriating Prince’s, producing copies of ‘his’ images, perhaps ‘transforming’ them by the addition of their signatures. I rather suspect Prince and his dealers would call foul and run to the courts in what would be a rather fascinating copyright case.

There is of course absolutely no need for any of this. I’ve had my work used by artists – and they have come to me before doing so, explained what they wanted to do and we have negotiated a licence with an appropriate fee, and appropriate attribution. It’s an established way of working that avoids controversy – without misappropriation. But the very idea of stealing other people’s work seems to me to be the basis of Prince’s artistic practice. He’s famous for it.

I don’t of course know what judgement the court will finally make – and Prince has got away with it in earlier copyright cases, though I hope at last it will be one that fully respects the rights of the photographer – and leads to them getting compensation for the use of their work as well as the legal costs of taking the case. Prince would still be the winner, with all the publicity from the case aiding his status and sales. The only losers – in the longer term – will be those who have paid high prices for what are works which will almost certainly be consigned to the dustbin of art history, lacking any real worth or interest.

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