Why Copyright Will Make Better Artists

Richard Prince Untitled (cowboy), 1989 Ektacolor photograph 127 x 178 cm © 2008 Richard Prince

The recent Cariou v. Prince copyright ruling has produced pandemonium and copious amounts of opinions and commentary. It’s disappointing to not be able to find an interesting thought that presents a unique perspective. Most thoughts regarding this case are purely emotive and without a scintilla of reason.

Today was refreshing.

Eric Felten, of the WSJ, today takes Prince and artists who use similar strategies to task.

There will be artists and critics who decry the chilling effect this will have on galleries’ willingness to sell appropriation art. But a liability-shy gimlet eye might ultimately be good for artists: Having to prove to the galleries that their work is truly transformative and not just a copy means the appropriators will have to strive to be demonstrably creative. Artists who believe that anything they do is, by definition, an act of genius are on the road to creative complacency. Might too much artistic freedom—such as an unlimited freedom to steal others’ work—breed lazy and insipid work?

This is great. In fact — and quite self-serving — I said the same thing last year on this blog, in an entry titled, Are We Really Headed Toward Permission-Based Artmaking? In that article, I write about the perceived threat to contemporary art and creativity by licensing systems and structures.

This perceived threat is guised as encompassing (and coming into being as) permission-based and license-based structures which artists would have to abide by in order to produce art works and other creative projects. This fear would be true only if artists continue to give up on the challenges posed by creativity and gave in to facile and lazy intellectual hyperbole. Why then is this threat being promulgated, and by whom? … The spectral fear of this sanctioning system of artistic production comes from an ignorance of two factors necessary to the valuation of art and artists. Those two factors are creativity and originality. Creativity has become synonymous with appropriation, while art has surprisingly bought into the academic belief in the death of originality.

Echoing Felten’s and my thoughts, Patrick Cariou agrees. When asked by the Huffington Post if he thought the recent fair use ruling would have “any negative effects on artists,” Cariou correctly responded:

It’s going to educate them. I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone. I don’t think artists should be offered a different standard from anyone else. When you’re 12 years old your parents tell you “Don’t steal the candy,” and we all try to apply that rule, and if you don’t people sometimes end up in jail. I’m interested in Warhol’s use of the Campbell soup can and Rauschenberg using readymade things — that I’m okay with. If it’s to steal photographs or paintings to create something, you shouldn’t be an artist in the first place. To me Richard Prince is more of an art director than an artist. I think he’s a good art director, and a great thief.

Cariou and Felten are right. Whether or not artists, galleries, critics, and curators learn from this decision and use it to leverage a more critically-based art world is another matter. One certainly hopes they do.

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