Photo: Marilyn K. Yee / The New York Times
Richard Prince. The Art of the Copy.
Since the late 1970s, when Richard Prince became known as a pioneer of appropriation art — photographing other photographs, usually from magazine ads, then enlarging and exhibiting them in galleries — the question has always hovered just outside the frames: What do the photographers who took the original pictures think of these pictures of their pictures, apotheosized into art but without their names anywhere in sight?
Randy Kennedy. The New York Times. December 6, 2007.
In a New York Times article this week about the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, Randy Kennedy talked to Jim Krantz, whose image for a Marlboro Man ad had been appropriated by Prince into an artwork and is featured on the Guggenheim’s poster. “When I left, I didn’t know if I should be proud, or if I looked like an idiot,” Krantz said. Prince told Randy Kennedy that he was trying for an effect he couldn’t achieve by creating his own images. “He once compared the effect to the funny way that ‘certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone and play the same records ourselves,’ ” wrote Kennedy.
With Prince’s artworks selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the issue of authorship of the images has become thorny. “Mr. Krantz said he considered his ad work distinctive, not simply the kind of anonymous commercial imagery that he feels Mr. Prince considers it to be,” wrote Kennedy. “People hire me to do big American brands to help elevate their images to these kinds of iconic images,” Krantz told him. And Krantz asked, rhetorically, if he italicized Moby Dick, would it become his own artwork?
I’ve quoted and paraphrased almost all of Randy Kennedy’s article. There’s more to it, though. It’s worth clicking the link through to the story itself and to view more images that The New York Times ran with the story. As a media reviewer I quote extensively, rather than paraphrasing, to allow the writer’s own voices to speak, and to retain the context of the pieces. But fair use, homage, copyright, and art statements are thorny issues on the Internet. I use many images from Flickr, always attributed to the photographer, and mostly only if they have a “creative commons” tag, which allows their use if it isn’t for commercial gain. When a photographer sends the mixed message of having an “all rights reserved” tag and a “blog this” button on the image itself, I may e-mail them to ask permission to run the photograph.
The Creative Commons
Michael Almereyda set Hamlet in New York at the turn of the twenty-first century. Hamlet’s father had been CEO of the Denmark Corporation and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet searched for his identity amid advertising images—Sam Shepard as Hamlet’s father’s ghost materializes out of a soda vending machine, for instance. Almereyda was criticised for the movie being larded with product placements but he paid the companies to display their products.
There’s still a class system in the world and in America, people who have things and people who don’t, and people who have things tend to make sure they keep having them and controlling them, and that’s aligned with corporate power, which is such an overarching power that you can’t even attack it without becoming part of it. It simply absorbs any kind of criticism. I don’t know that that’s the most profound aspect of the film but it seemed like a natural way of talking about contemporary power, and it’s aligned with consumer culture, people telling us that the more we buy, or if we buy the right things or wear the right things, we’ll be happy. I don’t think that’s completely divorced from what Shakespeare was talking about, because he was drawing lines between private experience and public experience, and authentic being and inauthentic being, all still a problem, if you’re awake and alive. So, Hamlet sparks a lot of these questions, and we’re just kind of scribbling in the margins sometimes, but I hope the film does also directly address some of those themes, and ideas that are spoken about in the soliloquies.
Michael Almereyda, interviewed by Pop Matters.
Hamlet anticipated the current prevalence of urban surveillance technologies—blogs and web cams as well as security cameras—and the way that they’ve made our lives open to being observed by the world. “A lot of the play is about people spying on each other and being watched and playing parts and being aware of themselves playing parts,” Almereyda told Pop Matters. “And that corresponds to contemporary reality where cameras are on the present and images within images are on the present, at least in the city. So that seemed like a natural way of mirroring things that were going on in Shakespeare’s text.”
These are the issues that Lawrence Lessig has been thinking about too, which drove him to create the Creative Commons licence. He’s commented on how difficult it is for young filmmakers to work in New York, where advertising images and iconic buildings and displays are considered copyright, and filmmakers must pay to use them in their works. Where should the product end and the city begin? he’s wondered. His system is a code of ethics for bloggers and independent artists to refer to and quote each other’s work. His 2004 book Free Culture is avalailable as a PDF download.
All creative works—books, movies, records, software, and so on—are a compromise between what can be imagined and what is possible—technologically and legally. For more than two hundred years, laws in America have sought a balance between rewarding creativity and allowing the borrowing from which new creativity springs. The original term of copyright set by the First Congress in 1790 was 14 years, renewable once. Now it is closer to two hundred. Thomas Jefferson considered protecting the public against overly long monopolies on creative works an essential government role. What did he know that we’ve forgotten?
Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can’t do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What’s at stake is our freedom—freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.