Wednesday, March 23, 2011

art tribes, old and new

Thanks to a ruling by U.S. District judge Deborah Batts, photographer Patrick Cariou will soon be in possession of a bunch of Richard Prince’s paintings and exhibition catalogs. Prince’s 2008 show, Canal Zone, borrowed heavily from Cariou’s 2000 photo book, Yes, Rasta; Cariou sued; and Batts ultimately deemed those borrowings fell outside of what can be considered fair use.

A further bizarre twist: Anyone who happened to buy pieces from that Gagosian show (the gallery sold eight pieces to the tune of about ten and a half million dollars) is now forbidden from showing the work. Guess I'll just have to leave my own million dollar Prince piece in the crate, then.

Read all about the decision

Reactions have been all over the spectrum. A lot of painters and photographers I know personally have been gleefully stamping their feet, decrying Prince’s laziness as a producer, and questioning the ways appropriation and recontextualization have become accepted practice in gallery culture.

Me, I’m a fan of fair use, and however ambivalent I might be about Prince’s methods in this show in particular—he apparently requested multiple copies of Yes, Rasta from Cariou’s studio without declaring his intent, and went on to use 35 photos in some 28 paintings total—the ruling threatens to turn contemporary art on its head, and will, if it stands, certainly change the way some galleries decide what to show.
Greg Allen explains why:

In a series of truly amazing statements, the most shocking is Batt's cursory finding that Prince, Gagosian, and the gallery all acted in bad faith by not proactively pursuing permission from Cariou to use his images. In other words, operating under the assumption that an artist enjoys a fair use exemption to use or reference a copyrighted element, or that an artist is using copyrighted material in a transformative way, is, on its face, bad faith.

The heart of the matter, though—and this also came up in the Jeff Koons decision back in 1992—seems to be whether or not Prince was specifically commenting on Cariou’s work by appropriating it. Batts didn’t think so; Ed Winkleman disagrees:

This is a philosophical question, and, of course, those who feel their copyrights have been infringed deserve to have their day in court, but "inherent in the process of appropriation is the fact that the new work recontextualizes whatever it borrows to create the new work" (emphasis mine). To my mind, that recontextualization is, in and of itself, always commentary.

So what was Prince commenting on, exactly? He didn’t do himself any favors by claiming in testimony that the work didn’t really have a specific message--that it was actually just part of some sort of big postmodern rock opera or something.

Yet the Canal Zone pieces actually are pretty easy to read: By juxtaposing pornographic images of Western women with romanticized black and white pics of Rastafarians, Prince seems to be commenting on the continuing Western fantasy of the exotic other—and the use of that fantasy as cover for bad behavior.

Since I’ve just written back-to-back pieces about
Picasso and Gauguin, I can’t help but think about these images in the context of modern Western painters at the start of the 20th century appropriating strategies and formal innovations from the frontiers of empire.

Picasso apparently visited the African art in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907 and subsequently painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon—which, in the faces of two of the figures, shows the clear influence of African masks.

Picasso's African period was brief, but full of extensive references to the African art he began to collect. For Picasso, African art held useful distortions—which, to the artists who made them, were not distortions at all, but devices in the service of an entirely different idea of what representation is and how it works. Picasso pried the devices loose from context and used them for his own purposes.

Gauguin, meanwhile, happily threw together references in his painting to Easter Island, art from New Zealand, Hindu idols, and whatever else came to hand, weaving his own personal fantasy of what life in Oceania, or New Zealand, or Martinique was really about--which, to him, seemed to involve lounging around with scantily clad, yellow-skinned ladies in some sort of primordial paradise.

It’s hard not to think of Patrick Cariou’s descriptions of the Rastafarians he visited in the same light: He described them as “...a spiritual society, living simply, independently, and in harmony with nature, apart from the industrialized world of environmental pollution and materialism which they reject and refer to as ‘Babylon.’” How different is this from, say, Gauguin’s Oceania, which became for the artist merely a metaphor for Eden or Arcadia?

Seen this way, Prince’s art really is a direct comment on Carious’s underlying assumptions. But that's an argument Prince seemed unwilling to pursue. In fact, Prince insisted he hadn't thought about Cariou’s intentions at all, describing his photos as “mere compilations of facts...arranged with minimum creativity.”

At the heart of Prince’s dismissal seems to be an assumption that Cariou is not a part of the contemporary art world. His work provides raw fodder for Prince’s own development of an idea, but without Prince, it has no merit—and, presumably, if Cariou were part of the art world, he wouldn’t be making these kinds of photos, anyway.

Oddly, this makes me think of
Roger Fry’s essay, "Negro Sculpture," first published in 1920, in which Fry describes what he thinks would happen to African artists were they to encounter Western art:

It is for want of a conscious critical sense and the intellectual powers of comparison and classification that the negro has failed to create one of the great cultures of the world, and not from any lack of the creative impulse…the lack of such a critical standard to support him leaves the artist much more at the mercy of any outside influence. It is likely enough that the negro artist, although capable of such profound imaginative understanding of form, would accept our cheapest illusionist art with humble enthusiasm.

Yikes. Thanks, art history, for creeping me out!

Anyway, I swear I’m not trying to equate a privileged Western photographer dude's predicament with the fates of oppressed races and cultures here...but it does seem like an eerie parallel: Prince considers Cariou’s work fair game because it doesn’t operate by the same critical standards as Prince's own contemporary gallery culture.

Seen this way, Prince’s work isn’t just commenting on the construction of the exotic other by the West; he’s actually mirroring the ways modern artists appropriated formal ideas from cultures they saw as inferior. Which I find strange, problematic, and kind of fascinating.


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