The Double-Edged Sword of Appropriation

As some of you may know, I was on a panel last Friday at the P.S.1 NY Art Book Fair on copyright and appropriation. THe panel was organized by Frick Library curator, Stephen Bury, the Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library, and included artists Eric Doeringer and Greg Allen (yes, the Greg Allen who published the court documents to the Cariou v. Prince case).

It was a standing room only crowd with great presentations by Doeringer and Allen, not to mention rigorous questions from the crowd. I made a few points, and interestingly enough, one of them concerned the ethics of appropriation. I posed the following hypothetical question: what if an artist appropriated and used an image in one of his artworks that depicted a lifestyle of a private individual, and where the individual was clearly identifiable in the image? Now imagine this image being posted on the website of the institution exhibiting the artists’ work. What if the individual depicted in the image wanted that image removed, as he, or she, did not want that their lifestyle made public for personal and/or family reasons? What should the artist and the art institution do?

The point of my question was of course to question whether appropriation is an all-or-nothing act? In other words, should one allow appropriation by only certain individuals and not others, and for certain political-ideological beliefs and not others?

As luck would have it, later that day I came across the following article, Anti-Gay Group Sued for Using Gay Couple’s Wedding Photo in Attack Ad, where the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing an anti-gay group—called the Public Advocate of the United States—for using a gay couple’s wedding photograph without permission. According to The Advocate, here’s the gist of the claim:

The suit alleges that the Public Advocate of the United States, an SPLC-designated antigay hate group, misappropriated the couple’s likeness and personalities, and as a result the couple suffered harm, including mental distress and anguish. The suit also alleges that Public Advocate made unlawful use of an image copyrighted by photographer Kristina Hill.

So, apparently, there’s more to copyright than monetary damages. What do you think should happen? Should appropriation have its ethical limits? Should appropriation be restricted to artists only? Liberals? Democrats? Pro-love but not hate-speech?

1 comment on this post.
  1. Richard Keefe:

    Sadly, this is another classic SPLC show trial.

    The case at hand is a textbook copyright infringement suit that any first-year lawyer could handle.

    The SPLC has stepped in because it can parlay the case into millions of donor-dollars, as it has in the past with civil suits against the Klan.

    It works like this:

    1. The SPLC uses its vast publicity resources to promote the case in its fundraising materials.

    2. The court awards an astronomical amount to the victims, which the defendants have no possible means of paying.

    3. The victims receive a minute fraction of the award while the SPLC takes in millions of donor-dollars from its ongoing PR campaign.

    The victims never see a dime of that money and, in the case of the Klan trials, not a single additional Klansman goes to prison because of the trial.

    The only thing the SPLC brings to this suit is publicity.

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