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Creative Expropriation
Column by DeWitt Cheng

Barbara Krueger, ''Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook),'' 1985, gelatin silver prints in artist's frames, 67 x 137 3/4''.


The idea of creative appropriation became prominent in the 1980s along with postmodernist theory, lending theoretical cover to a generation of artists who disdained the traditional idea of artistic originality. They were interested instead in a critical examination of capitalist media culture. This was in stark contrast to the Pop artists who preceded them by a generation, a group that welcomed the matrix of commercial messages, with little irony, as a refuge from by then stodgy AbEx high-mindedness. 


Among the former, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince are perhaps most closely associated with the idea of art as sociopolitical commentary. Both had worked in magazine publishing, she for Vogue, he for Time. Kruger is known for her declamatory faux ads, targeting manipulative Madison Avenue culture, especially that aimed at women. Prince made his name with deconstructions of cowboy machismo by removing the copy from Marlboro Country ads featuring photos by Sam Abell. Thanks to the art world’s miraculous powers of assimilation, they are now renowned cultural dissidents — American mass-culture refuseniks — endowed with both critical and commercial cachet. This week added some interesting wrinkles to the complex story of commodified rebellion, and Prince and Kruger are in the middle of it.


In 2008, Prince repurposed (for his "Canal Zone" show that generated $10M+ in sales at Gagosian Gallery) the photos of Jamaican Rastafarians by French photographer Patrick Cariou featured in his 2000 book, "Yes Rasta." Cariou sued for copyright infringement, and in 2011 won his case in federal district court in Manhattan. Judge Deborah A. Batts cited the “fair use” precedents applied in previous cases against Jeff Koons and Robert Rauschenberg that mandated substantial changes to the source material, and add commentary, criticism, or other analysis, “refer[ring] back to the original work,” and presumably not simply damaging the original creator, as was the case here. 


In late April, however, that judgment was reversed in the Second Circuit appeals court, with Judge Barrington Parker and a majority of the impaneled judges overruling Batt. Quoting from the New York Times article: “The law does not require that a secondary use comment on the original artist or work, or popular culture.” It need only differ from the original sufficiently to be considered  “transformative.” “Where Cariou’s serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of the Rastafarians and their surrounding environs, Prince’s crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.” (Prince had argued all along that he never intended any commentary on Cariou’s works.) One dissenting judge, John Clifford Wallace, cautioned the majority on deciding what levels of transformation were protected, citing his own “limited art experience,” a judgment with which others, including Cariou’s lawyer, agreed. Wallace, as have others, cautioned that this decision merely muddies the waters on intellectual property rights. Yet to be seen is exactly what Prince’s tactical abrogation of intellectual content does to his reputation as a conceptual artist.


If the second Cariou-Prince ruling reminds me of Gustave Courbet’s  declaration that “The state is not competent in artistic matters ... When the state leaves us free, it will have carried out its duty,” the Kruger story makes me wish for some mature artistic guidance from the feds. Kruger’s trademark style involves pointed texts in white letters on red rectangles in two specific typestyle fonts, one of which is Futura Heavy Oblique. "Untitled (When I Hear the Word Culture I Take Out My Checkbook)" paraphrases Nazi leader Hermann Goring to convey the culture-warrior tone that has cross-market appeal both to ivory-tower utopians and to the wider family of ironic shopaholics — two subcultures that are not as antithetical or mutually exclusive as they might at first seem. Such is the extent to which art fashion, intellectual fashion and plain old fashionability have converged that Krugerisms like “Business as usual” and “I shop therefore I am” are printed on shopping and tote bags in our ironic age, and strategically placed atop nude photos of Kim Kardashian. 


Some twenty-five or more businesses have copied Kruger’s graphic-design look in their products, including SHtxfaced, Sexinthemouth, L.. as well as Gimme and Alife. The skateboard company, Supreme, which markets $3,500 artist skateboards embellished with designs by George Condo, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, and which recently sued Leah McSweeney for her use of the term “Supreme Bitch” (which predates Supreme, you streetwear fashion mavens), is another. Foster Kamer of asked Kruger to comment. Her pithy reply: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”


The aesthetic liberations in the visual arts of the past fifty years, since Warhol declared art a business, were invigorating at the time, but art has been completely subsumed into capitalism. Few consumers are willing, let alone able, to resist the siren’s merchandising call (and by this I include the alpha dogs of the art world), so where does that leave us? Madison Avenue is, of course, recently fashionable, with the popularity of "Mad Men," but maybe what we need is more satire of Mad Ave, like that provided, unpretentiously, and sometimes sophomorically, for a half century, by ”the usual gang of idiots” at Mad Magazine, who seem to have predicted commodified defiance and trivial non-conformity long, long ago. Seen the Punk show at the Met yet? 

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