Obama images are everywhere, the most popular icon of the 21st century. Obama's image is out of control, everywhere. Can copyrights of his image be enforced when they are remixed? Like Warhol's use of pop icons (images of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Mao), references to existing art and icons is our method of digital literacy, signs of meaning, ideas that everyone wants to own and refer to. These Shepard Fairey Commemorative Plates can be purchased individually for $89, or as a set of two (one of each color) for $178, from The Future Perfect.
The desire to personally possess, to interact, the make meaning, to create is innate. I think we are born with a need to create, to find meaning and to interact with others in artistic ways. Who can own the idea of a thing? This is continuing from my earlier post Stolen Art and Copyright.
Limiting the commercial use of Obama?
Shepard Fairey now produces official White House collectibles even as White House Lawyers are wanting to limit commercial use of Obama and control the use of the president’s image. Can Obama be trademarked? His image is out of the chute, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. I love the photo, below right, that shows how our cultural moments and cultural ideas become possessions. Terry Heaton, who blogged it, calls it the personal media moment.
Fairey is the Art Appropriator of the Moment
The Obama Poster that Shepard Fairey used, based on an AP photo by Mannie Garcia, is a remix that falls well within the parameters of "fair use". David Ross, former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, makes an interesting defense of appropriation, revolving around the idea of the artist's intention. He says "the idea that an artist is the one who decides what a work of art is... is the root of the issue. That's been a standard art doctrine at least since Dada and Marcel Duchamp emerged early in the 20th century. " His distinctioin is that Fairey intended to make art while Garcia's goal was photojournalism. Are photos not artworks? Regardless, the idea of fair use, in my thinking, is also at the base of things. His transformative use of the image - both in flipping and re-orienting it, adding jacket and tie and the "O" Obama logo, and converting it to his block print style make it consistent with all legal precedents for use. I've always wondered where Jackie Kennedy's photo came from -- the one that Warhol used for his screen print. That is a perfect comparison to the Obama Poster, except now we are in the area of digital images, not just Warhol's use of screenprinting for his reproduction iterative works.
Appropriation in the digital world has gone out the roof. Fairey has been accused of plagiarizing and he has developed a successful career through expropriating and recontextualizing the artworks of others, which is the art form of the moment. He knows how to reference not only celebrities, but motifs, history and culture. Like the street guerilla artist Banksy, who Fairey admires, understands the semiotics of signs. Graphic design is so central to our commercial culture -- brands, marketing, advertising - these things make ideas and associations part of our symbolic literacy. Existing signs are reinterpreted and used in remix. Our literacy is moving away from text and into signs.
Precedence of Semiotic Referencing of Popular Images
Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein based his paintings on the world of American comic strips and advertising imagery, building on an already existing form of semiotics and imagery as Warhol referenced the celebrities and images of his time. Private interpretation and experience is subjugated to a mass identification with existing popular cultural ideas.
Richard Prince's work (where he copied the work of others), was one of the early examples of an artist appropriating the works of others to make them his own. He appropriated a photo of Brooke Shields taken by Gary Gross and made it his own, crediting Gary Gross in the title of his photo. Prince's new iteration became more famous than Gross' work and the controversy was one of the early examples of art appropriation. Gross sued Prince. More recently, in 2009, Prince has been once again threatened with a lawsuit over appropriating the work of another artist.
In 2005 Prince used a photo of a Marlboro Man and it was auctioned for over $1.2 million -- his practice of stealing other people's pictures and publishing them as his own. A copyright lawyer notes that this area of "appropriating and manipulating images has become a widespread phenomenon. His appropriation may foreshadow the copyright battles of the future, and a weakening of the visual artist's copyright."
Warhol took iconic images, remade them and his images became more famous and he rode the method of semiotic art to the huge heights, enriching himself and making himself a celebrity in the process. Fairey openly admits to directly copying an image created by someone else (he calls this "referencing") and, like Warhol, who he cites as one of his influences, he's become as famous for his style almost as the subject he uses. The image he uses is less important than the iconic personality or his remade art. What other artist uses the term "the semiotics of consumption"?
Where does ownership exist, really?
Related to this, somewhat, is the looting of artifacts, taking them from the original place of context where they hold cultural meaning, and the modern debate of who owns them. Repatriation of Indian artifacts, the ownership of antiquities in museums, the Stone of Scone, the Elgin Marbles, the Jewish art stolen by the Nazis....Where does ownership exist?
Should there be a statute of limitations for ownership?
Historically, the ownership of art is strange. Until people bought pottery from the New Mexico Indians, they never thought about signing their pieces but soon adapted to the way that the Anglos look at art and ownership. Art has value and since the beginning of recorded history art has been looted and stolen, taken hither and yon, as objects to value, copy, own and regarded as signs of culture to treasure. Should art be in private hands, who should benefit from the ownership, and...should important works of art should be available to all through public ownership? Digitally now they can.
Stolen treasure and repatriation...
The outgoing director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, was forced to send a famous vase back to Italy earlier this year. Does Italy really need another vase by this artist, when there are others? There should now surely be a statute of limitations on this kind of restitution some say, but where does it end? The idea of repatriating can be applied to Native Americans whose trust funds were mishandled by our government. Or the Stone of Scone that Kings and Queens of England sat upon to be crowned, which was stole from the Scots. Should Indians who had their monies mismanaged by the U.S. be able to have restitution? Is there an end to this? Who owns art and treasure and who profits from the ownership?
Digital Pirates Winning Battle With Studios was the title of a recent article dealing with piracy. Last July as “The Dark Knight” was released to theatres, Warner Brothers was ready with an ambitious antipiracy campaign. The company spent months planning ways to monitor each physical copy of the film but they couldn't contain ownership and it failed: "By the end of the year, illegal copies of the Batman movie had been downloaded more than seven million times around the world, according to the media measurement firm BigChampagne, turning it into a visible symbol of Hollywood’s helplessness against the growing problem of online video piracy."
How do you keep what is "yours"??? Fairey practices at the intersection of art, popular culture and politics, yet as he appropriates the work of others, he also tries to control ownership of his own work. Fairey issued a cease and desist order against an artist that used one of his images... He is going to fight the battle.
The issue of commercialism, of profiteering...
It wasn't always like this. Copyrights, trademarks, patents and other legal mechanisms associated with the ownership of ideas (and not things) once had finite terms. Mass production has made the production and profit of tangible works and the idea of authorship more relevant and complicated. Protecting artists, or creators or owners of works (not always the same entity) to profit from the work was the original concept of copyrights and patents and trademarks. When you set up the legal ownership to provide perpetual income, this takes works out of the domain of referencing, limiting ideas and production. Hence, the current laws are limiting creation more than protecting creators. Technology allows stealing - the "rip, mix and burn" of today can easily be applied to almost any art form - songs, art, plays and creative works of high and low culture produced throughout human history and this disrupts everything.
Fairey appears to be riding not just a popular swell but a veritable tsunami of cultural change as
an article in Boston.com puts it: More than any other artist of his generation, except perhaps Banksy, a fellow street artist from Britain (described by Fairey in the catalog as his "favorite artist"), Fairey has managed to capture and shape public consciousness. And that, for a visual artist, is no small thing.
And yet in many ways Fairey is so right-on it hurts."
OK. Taken to the extreme for shock value...
Will Farrell appropriated a penis off the internet and called it Bush's in his Broadway play and shocked the audience. Perhaps that is the final take-away, something stolen and referenced for elsewhere. The idea of the artifact.
There are no limits to ownership anymore. Were limits ever existing, really? I've not read Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct, but I agree with him on the idea that the desire to create is innate. I believe we interpret the world around us and in the process, not only contribute to the transmission and communication of culture, we work with it, taking it in, absorbing it and retranslating it. From studying folk art and trying to figure out the difference between "fine art" and "folk art" I've been fascinated with all of these ideas. Now that we can, globally, take in and create, ownership of unique works will become less important. Culture will be expressed, ideas will be stolen and treasure looted and value debated.