I would probably feel more generous towards the famous artist Richard Prince, who has been ordered to destroy a series of works found to have infringed the copyright of photographer Patrick Cariou, if it were not for the fact that I happened to spend yesterday looking at the founding masterpieces of modern art – at Manet's Olympia, and the enigmatic vegetable form of Rouen cathedral painted by Monet – in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Modern art started as such a great experiment, such an awakening of the eye and mind. And it has come to this?
Wait, before you reject this as a conservative rant. I am aware that it is lazy to dismiss contemporary art out of hand. Think yourself into a black mood about it and the next thing you know, some genuinely brilliant video installation will come along to prove you foolish. The art of today abounds in interest. But ... it also includes Prince, which has to be a point against it.
Let us examine this news story. Prince and his gallery, Gagosian, have lost a case in which he was accused of taking a fistful of photographs published by Cariou, adding various daft decorations to them, and selling them as his own original artworks. He and Gagosian made millions of dollars from these "Richard Prince" works, which may now have to be repaid.
None of this will damage Prince's art-world reputation. Appropriation is what he does. He was one of the original wave of American postmodern artists who questioned the very ideas of originality and authorship by taking images directly from popular culture with only minor reworkings. He revels in a piratical, bad-boy reputation, and his response to this court ruling will be the equivalent of a cheeky grin, or indeed an actual cheeky grin.
The sophisticates will shrug it off, sighing at the cultural illiteracy of judges who do not understand the tradition of the readymade going back to Duchamp. . . . But sometimes – especially when you have been looking at Manet – you have to allow yourself a grumble. Critics of contemporary art are wrong to dismiss it all sweepingly because of stories like this. But it is the kind of tale about today's artworld that should make even its biggest fan wonder for a moment if we are perhaps playing a big joke on ourselves for the entertainment of posterity.
I am troubled. Fine art, truly fine art in an art gallery, is a place where a copyrighted work becomes a fetish object, a tribute, a decontextualized thing revealing a new meaning. The urinal of Marcel Duchamp. The Brillo Box of Andy Warhol. Both utilitarian objects made by others and fetishized by the artists.And look at L.H.O.O.Q. - nothing original in the execution, but the Mona Lisa was in the public domain at the time. Prince is blatantly stealing.
Plagiarists take the words of others and try to make you believe that they have crafted them. But Prince's cutouts from advertising, porn and outlaw biker magazines never misled the consumer.
But somewhere, something bothers me about shutting a highly respected fine artist down completely and burning his works when the first sale doctrine would permit him to buy a copy, modify it and resell it. When the First Amendment lets even repulsive speech be heard and the contemporary art world says it is art, I have a problem with the government burning it.
To me, an original work of fine art properly labeled as such by a new artist is almost pure speech - or in some way pure idea - even if it includes major appropriations. Things change when the artwork is widely reproduced. When the consumers are paying tens of thousands for Prince to take something no one is interested in, put his spin on it, and add value. Prince's "appropriation" added ten million dollars worth of value to a pile of books. Everyone knew he didn't create the original.
This is not a question of consumers being defrauded, these are wealthy ultrasophisticates on the cutting edge who are the purchasers - surrounded by the top art advisers and critics -if these people feel that Prince's value added is that great, what is the harm in letting them indulge, as long as Prince legally purchased the original books? In fact, Prince's prices will probably soar - scarcity and scandal drive art prices up.
From a semiotic perspective, isn't Prince simply holding up a mirror to people who may not want to look at themselves or their art as art in the hands of another? And if your message is mirror-like, is it less valid? And if you don't have the verbal skills to articulate what you are doing, is that any less a mirror?