Monday, February 12, 2007

"Fugitive Artist" (UPDATED)

Roberta Smith had a review last week of a Richard Prince show up at the Neuberger Museum that raises some interesting copyright issues. It's a show of very early works by the artist, and Smith reports that he wasn't thrilled with the idea and so "declined to participate in the Neuberger show, as did his dealer, Barbara Gladstone." He also refused permission to reproduce the works in the exhibition’s catalogue (Smith points out that the catalogue designer made a virtue out of necessity by including "blank rectangles, complete with captions, where the images should be," making it "something of a participatory Conceptual Art piece"), and a reader asks whether this might amount to the kind of "copyright misuse" discussed earlier today in the context of the Joyce case. I think not -- there's very little caselaw on what constitutes misuse, but whatever it is, an artist should always have the right to turn down permission to use his work in a project he's not happy with, which is why Carol Shloss's lawyers wisely based their misuse claim on other kinds of alleged abuse by the Joyce estate ("intimidation," and claiming rights in third-party materials they clearly did not own the copyrights in). Of course there is always fair use, which is what the Times relied on in sending its own photographer to take photos to run with the review. For her part, Smith finds the whole thing a little baffling: "It is hard to understand Mr. Prince’s disengagement from a respectful show of works he obviously took quite seriously. Some are a bit embarrassing, but in the main they increase his stature."

UPDATE: Ed Winkleman comes at the story from a different angle, focusing on the ethical issues involved when an artist disowns his own early work: "I'm not saying an artist shouldn't destroy the earlier work they still have if they reach that point of recognition where it makes them cringe, but once they've cashed the check from selling it, they're obligated to let it stand as a product of their efforts (or at least obligated to buy it back [at current market value] and then destroy it). They've agreed to a social contract by accepting money for it, IMO." In the comments, David Palmer quips that "someone who bought the early work can't say they own an artwork by Richard Prince. The work they own is by the artist formerly known as Richard Prince." (Another commenter wonders if "maybe this is an appropriationist's prank, all about authorship, originality, etc.")