Is Appropriation Appropriate?

December 13, 2007 | By Ross McLain | Creative

Photo: Erik Dreyer

As an interesting follow-up to the last post about the copyright issues surrounding the Pop Art show in London, is an article in the NY Times a couple of days ago about appropriated photography in fine art. Included are quotes from photographer Jim Krantz, whose work has been appropriated (with much success – the piece in question sold at auction a few years ago for upwards of $300,000) by the most famous ‘appropriationist’ of them all – Richard Prince. Mr. Krantz’s photography is currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum by way of Mr. Prince’s well-received 30-year retrospective exhibition there currently.

Mr. Prince’s canny insouciance is captured nicely in a quote from 1993, where he off-handedly compares his series of appropriated Marlboro Man imagery to bank robbery: “No one was looking. This was a famous campaign. If you’re going to steal something, you know, you go to the bank.”

Despite what one thinks of the means used, Prince’s selection of the Marlboro Man imagery is appropriate in more ways than one – for years the now legendary Prince has been carefully cultivating his own image as one of a cowboy or outlaw of the art world. What could be ‘cooler’ than a successful bank robber? Images of cowboys (from advertising no less), biker chicks, inane one-liner jokes painted on canvas, seedy pulp fiction book covers reproduced as large paintings, actual hot rod hoods as sculpture – it all glows with the “aren’t I a bad-ass”, James Dean-meets-King Midas aura that surely is the unspoken base appeal at work behind Prince’s success. It operates like a cultural pheromone, luring everyone from the bookish critics, curators and academics who have steeped themselves soggy with arcane theory and hope some of the cool will rub off, to the uber-rich and listless collectors of uber-priced art, for whom the promise of an injection of life-blood from the netherworldly cultures of the American hoi polloi is irresistible, to young art students (who in a former era may have gone to Hollywood), who find reassurance in the Prince story (for themselves and their parents as well, who initially balked at the art school price-tags) , sensing that it augurs well for their own future success – after all, looking cool is what they’ve done so well their whole life.

But these more sordid motives are rarely if ever mentioned, indeed perhaps taboo, though easily discernable beneath the kind of intricately coded veil of mystifying sophistry that seems to have become the sole function of art writing (or perhaps always has been?). To wit (from the Guggenheim’s introduction to the current show): “[Prince's] deceptively simple act in 1977 of rephotographing advertising images and presenting them as his own ushered in an entirely new, critical approach to art-making—one that questioned notions of originality and the privileged status of the unique aesthetic object”.

But I admit to being a bit incendiary here, perhaps betraying the influence of Prince, provocateur par excellence, on myself as well. I do feel Prince to be an important and influential American artist, but also wonder if that importance might not rest at least partially on what he has revealed about the inner workings of the art world in contemporary society (intentionally or unintentionally? yet more fodder for the art sophists) . Whether it’s his influence or not is arguable (certainly not his alone), but when perfect recreations of grunge and gutter-punk get-ups from barely a decade ago sell for thousands of dollars in high-end fashion boutiques, I wonder if we’re any the wiser for it.

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