Top: Susan Meiselas (1979) The Molotov Man;
Bottom: Joy Garnett (2003) Molotov from the series Riot
The brief: Joy Garnett is known for her paintings inspired by accessible digital images. Following an exhibition of her work in 2004, Garnett received a cease and desist letter citing infringement of copyright, from a lawyer representing Susan Meiselas. After a debate, which became known as ‘Joywar’, both put forward their perspectives in an article for Harpers Magazine titled ‘On the Rights of the Molotov Man’. We were asked to think about how you would feel if someone created an artwork that appropriated, referenced or remixed your image. Other than legal action, how could you use your practice to resolve the issue? Try to think about the debate at different scales as well as in different contexts.
I can see lots of thoughtful comments on this issue on Canvas, many of which I agree with. It is interesting that, despite the debate, and threatened action, Meiselas did not sue.
Perhaps even more importantly, at the end of the article published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007, Meiselas notes:
‘I still feel strongly, as I watch Pablo Arauz’s context being stripped away – as I watch him being converted into the emblem of an abstract riot-that it would be a betrayal of him if I did not at least protest the diminishment of his act of defiance’.
I would personally be pretty upset if my work was used without attribution, though happy if it were used creatively in new work with attribution of the original.
I think that Meiselas hits the nail on the head.
Garnett was not deliberately trying to rip Meiselas off, as far as anyone can tell. But she was appropriating an image into a different context. I do think she should have acknowledged the original more forthrightly. But her right to re-contextualise seems clear.
Consider two other cases, one directly connected, and one elliptically connected, but both dealing with appropriation.
1. Andy Warhol and the soup cans.
Warhol treated the can (and, importantly, its design) as a found object. In the spirit of Pop Art he photographed it (in 1962) in its many varieties, and considered it ripe for mass reproduction.
To my knowledge, the original designer of the label never got credit from Warhol.
Yet Campbell’s themselves apparently liked the idea, and sent Andy a case of soup!
I am not sure who is getting the royalties …
Stepping back, my point is that appropriation and re-appropriation in different contexts seems an acceptable norm. Had Garnett simply copied Meiselas’ image and claimed it (a la Richard Prince) I think I would be more troubled. That’s something we all are affected by on Social Media.
On my blogs I allow freedom to copy but not change via a Creative Commons 3.0 non-commercial non-deriv license . I also occasionally ‘police’ this via Pixsy, which has allowed me to execute a few takedowns. However, my work is hardly famous enough to require a lot of police work!
On my photography site, items are download protected, although i realise that will not stop screen grabs.
Let me turn to a broader example of appropriation – that of human beings.
2. The Hornsleth Homeless Tracker
The HHT is an ethical boundary smashing work, which fuses homelessness, privacy invasion, inequality and reality TV, with present day cultural decadence and interactive conceptual art.
The HHT follows Hornsleth as he buys homeless people from the streets of London and sells them as art works to private collectors.
Each homeless, has been fitted with a tracking device allowing their owner to follow them 24-7 via a private app, effectively converting the homeless into a real-life Pokémon Go or human Tamagotchi. The owners will receive a real gold portrait of their homeless.
The public will also be able follow the struggles of their favorite homeless characters through YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tinder’.
In a word, NO. This seems to be artistically defendable (exploration of surveillance, the art market, etc.) but ethically unacceptable.
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should.
Slavery in the name of Art.
Would welcome everyone’s views.