Friday, May 18, 2012

Collage is a medium for the weak

NPR aired a good report yesterday on the lawsuit against artist Richard Prince, who cut photos out of a book, pasted them on a canvas with other images and sold them for millions of dollars. The photographer is suing Prince for profiting off his work without permission or compensation.

Prince has no qualms with taking other peoples work, and in his mind, he transforms their work into something new. There are cases where that falls under fair use. However, with Prince, a lot of his work is indistinguishable from simple theft.

He had a project where he took famous books and reprinted them with his name in place of the author. He called these pirated items "book sculptures."

How exactly did this transform the work into something new? He even inserted a line of text in the books that read “This is an artwork by Richard Prince. Any similarity to a book is coincidental and not intended by the artist.”

NPR printed a quote from him that was a lot more honest.

"I mean a lot of people would probably say, 'Well, wait a minute, you really can't do this. You can't go out and buy a book and sign it, call it yours and sell it.' But for me, that's very easy to do," he said.
I'm sure it is.

Elementary school students like to draw Batman or cartoon characters when they're learning how to draw. Some budding young writers make "Fan fiction" of the Harry Potter characters. This is acceptable for children and people with undeveloped skills, but it does not rise to greatness.

Using someone else's work as the backbone of your work is artistically lazy. That doesn't necessarily make it bad, but it limits the achievement of the artist and implies weak skills.

There is a relationship between the amount of transformation and the magnificence of the artist's achievement. The novel Ulysses comes to mind, which uses ancient mythology as a distant point of inspiration. Mod-games like Defense of the Ancients and Counterstrike used the engines of existing video games to completely transform the experience into something entirely different.

In my small vinyl record collection I have an album of Beastie Boys remixes from a college friend under his DJ name "Phonocoid." He said that remixing a song is a lot of work, which is true, but his finished product ends up relying on someone else's work. If you're going to put all the work into a project, why not make it stand on its own?

A few years ago I attended a New Media department presentation on the Creative Commons non-copyright option. There was a live video chat with a guy who made a splash on the web by staying indoors for a year and posted a video of himself waddling from the fridge to his computer. Users could log in so it will save their progress if they felt like viewing the entire 365 day stretch.

He made the case for Creative Commons by saying what he did was an "update" of a performance from artist Tehching Hsieh, where Hsieh put himself in a tight cage for a year.

Calling it an update, of course, implies improvement. This was not the case. While Hsieh's bit wasn't anything to write home about, the modern online video showed a fat basement dweller not leaving his house, something I doubt he does very often. If this is supposed to be a strong case for how Creative Commons will lead to more quality art, then it's time to scrap the idea.

Richard Prince is a hack. He takes things other artists put hard work into and makes minor changes and unfortunately, profits handsomely. It's one thing to take inspiration from someone else, it's entirely different to  tweak it slightly and demand full credit.

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