It's never a bad day, or more often evening, when I get to Skype with Peter Coulson, an artist I am proud to say is my friend, from his place in Melbourne, Australia. However, our most recent Skype discussion was totally hinged around the controversy surrounding Richard Prince's appropriation and subsequent sale of prints featuring Instagram screenshots of photos by other photographers. One of these photos, in fact, was shot by Coulson. I asked him about it, and we chatted.
First off, I want to immediately address this article's title. It says "Potentially Illegal Sale", as opposed to declaring Prince's print sales as being obviously illegal, because, as I noted in a previous article, the matter isn't totally obvious. Yet. And since this whole matter will almost certainly lead to copyright law changing, as mentioned by copyright attorney John Arsenault, "This hasn’t been tested in the way [Prince] is doing it, by the courts, not specifically this question. I think this is open ended still, and it would be absolutely an interesting question to take to the courts."
Legal details aside, on the surface most people are upset by what they are flat out calling art theft by Prince. As one can imagine, Coulson wasn't too tickled to discover one his own masterworks was directly involved in the whole mess. The Sydney Morning Herald was one of several Australian news outlets that reached out to him for comment, and as of this writing Coulson hasn't yet attempted legal action against Prince. But that's not to say he won't. Coulson made it quite clear that he sees Prince's actions as plainly illegal and immoral art theft.
Cheap t-shirts and cheap music.
Curiously, this isn't Coulson's first issue with his photos being stolen for glaringly commercial purposes. In recent years, he has come to discover his work had been stolen for illegal sale of t-shirts bearing his images, untold amounts of casual downloads of his work off the web, and Coulson has even seen his images emblazoned on stage during a Motley Crue tour just a few years ago. All these appropriations were not authorized and illegal. Random people taking images off the web and using them illegally is nothing new (and neither is Crue being total shitheads) but as Coulson puts it, "You can't just give up. You have to fight it - for yourself, for the industry, for artists everywhere."
And fight it he shall. Coulson won't comment about any actual litigation that may or may not be in process, but he did say he "had plans" for how he would address the Richard Prince debacle.
The fact is, photographers fall victim to their images being downloaded every single minute of every single day online. However, when it's a fellow artist compiling a personal mood board for inspiration, or just a fan who wants a desktop wallpaper, no one bats an eyelash or worries for even a second. Things get ugly when photographers' work is downloaded, modified and then uploaded elsewhere, of course, but nothing is quite as egregious as what Richard Prince has done with his recent Instagram screenshots: profiting off of someone else's artwork.
Well, this isn't a new thing.
Yes, it's happened before, many times by Prince himself and the likes of Warhol before him, but this particular case stands out for one key reason. The photos in question were otherwise not modified by Prince, yet he printed them and sold them for enormous sums of money. The argument that "He was using a screenshot of the Instagram interface, complete with [Prince's] own comment shown, therefore it constitutes fair use under the premise that the printed screenshot has social value" falls on deaf ears when it comes to me.
And, unsurprisingly, also when it comes to Peter Coulson.
"You don't need to do a federal copyright here in Australia, as in most countries. [The Unites States] is a rare example of where federal copyrights are available and encouraged," Coulson mentions, "And I'm not convinced they are worth doing, necessarily, but may have to consider it after all this."
Coulson is slated to start his first workshops tour of the U.S. this month, and as such will also likely be shooting a bevy of projects while he is here. Copyright concerns when it comes to the United States couldn't be closer to the forefront of his mind now, and I for one can't blame him.
Everyone has an opinion.
The art community, or rather a few dissenters who claim to speak for the art community, have derided me regarding my stance on the Richard Prince matter via comments, emails and messages on social media. These criticisms mainly cited my lack of open-mindedness about Prince's freedom of expression as an artist or my myopic view of what constitutes social value in the world of visual art. To me, social value in art should be inherently clear when one views said art, and not have to be overly justified. If the artist is trying to send a message to the public, to the masses, then the message should be clear and succinct, and ideally emotionally moving.
Andy Warhol's soup cans and quadrant silk screens, though now iconic, are mostly contrived, repetitive and evoked zero emotion from me. Richard Prince's Instagram screenshots evoke the exact same, if not theoretically less.
No one said art has to be particularly good to be groundbreaking or become iconic, but to disrespect other artists by printing screenshots of their work is unacceptable in my worldview. And unlike Warhol's appropriations, modern computer technology plays a role in how I assess the situation when it comes to Prince.
Allow me to explain. Almost no one is emotionally moved by me downloading a JPG file of a photographer's image onto my iMac, opening it up in Microsoft Word to size it on a letter sized document and add my name to the top of it in Helvetica Neue typeface, and then printing it at FedEx Kinko's as a new piece for me to put up for auction. Almost no one calls that art or is moved by the total lack of personal artistry in that scenario considering I started the entire process with someone else's photo. Why? Because almost every computer-owning putz with an internet connection could do the exact same thing here in 2015.
At least Warhol had to put some effort into his silkscreens, although he would be the first to openly admit they were manufactured en masse in order to sell more. On top of that, even after his death, the world discusses (argues?) the social value in his works, especially when, as reported in 2012, the Andy Warhol Foundation chairman stated "We're converting art into money," when the Wall Street Journal talked to him about a then recent announcement that the Foundation would be selling upwards of 20,000 Warhol art pieces almost all at once. Where is the social value in purging thousands of works to "convert it to money"? I'm certain Warhol wouldn't give a shit, and would have applauded (if not initiated) that move in 2012, and I'm equally certain Prince doesn't lose sleep at night about his far less interesting Instagram appropriations.
And yes, I know for example, if you have to explain Pink Floyd's The Wall to someone who is hearing it for the first time, they simply may not get it and perhaps explaining can help them get their head around the many messages and themes throughout the record. However, to compare a double album of recorded music and lyrics to a handful of printed enlargements of Instagram screenshots is, in my opinion, utterly misguided - so I won't.
Esotericism in art is hardly new, and actually mostly strived for by many artists. There is perhaps something satisfying about creating artwork that isn't immediately understood or perhaps isn't possible to understand because it's random, or highly abstract. I get that. I'm no art gallery frequenter, and never claimed to be, so I cannot speak too much more about the visual art community when it comes to gallery showings or auctions, but I stand behind my opinion that Richard Prince is simply being a weasel by doing what he did with other photographer's works. Hell, I can almost see some semblance of value (and interest) in his Canal Zone project when compared to this Instagram affair.
Call me what you will, but I don't get it. Richard Prince simply doesn't have my respect, and I suspect I don't have his were he to read this. But alas, it is what it is.
[Photos used with permission.]