Appropriation of Artistic Theft?

There has been some really interesting discussion going on about the recent review in Newsweek, which asked “Is Photography Dead?” On a related note, please check out this article, which was published last week in the New York Times. The piece focuses on the artist Richard Prince, who gained fame (and wealth) by re-photographing advertising imagery—most notably imagery from Marlboro’s famed cowboy campaign. The story works up quite a sweat in its attempts to portray Prince as an artistic thief w

There has been some really interesting discussion going on about the recent review in Newsweek, which asked "Is Photography Dead?" On a related note, please check out this article, which was published last week in the New York Times. The piece focuses on the artist Richard Prince, who gained fame (and wealth) by re-photographing advertising imagery—most notably imagery from Marlboro's famed cowboy campaign. The story works up quite a sweat in its attempts to portray Prince as an artistic thief who steals imagery made by other photographers.
Like the Newsweek story, which lamented the loss of photographic realism in the age of Photoshop, the Times's article picks a fight over a topic--the right of an artist to appropriate imagery--that was essentially resolved during the post-modern era 20 years ago.
Photography has moved well beyond the traditions that defined the art in the mid- and late 20th century. Prince's work—now on view at a 30-year retrospective at the Guggenheim museum in New York—is a powerful reflection on the power of photography and the culture of advertising. This is not an act of thievery.
While it may anger a lot of editorial and advertising photographers, the fact is that once images enter the visual culture, they take on a life of their own—a life completely separate from the intent of the people who created them. It is entirely appropriate for commentators, artists foremost, perhaps, to cite such photography. Marlboro imagery, when taken out of its commercial context—has an entirely different meaning as it reflects on our ideas of American iconography and identity.
Actually, my favorite part of the article comes when the author attempts to cast an ominous shadow over Prince's career by telling us that he once had to "make a small payment" in a legal settlement with the photographer Garry Gross. The back story here is that Gross made once made some pictures of a very young Brooke Shields—these images were supposed to pass as art, but they were certainly salacious. (Were they child porn, as many people have held? Let's just say the "ick" factor was very high.) In fact, it was Prince's re-interpretation of the images that allowed us to see the images in the context of the seductive commercial culture at large.
--David Schonauer

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