Roy Lichtenstein, Image Duplicator (1963) Via
UPDATE 3/20/12: FULL RECORDING now available.
UPDATE 3/7/12: Download the recorded session from iTunesU.
I've been asked by a number of people if there will be a recording or a transcript of this session, and the answer is YES: SVA recorded video, which they will make available soon on their Vimeo and iTunesU sites. I'll post the links here. In the meantime, I thought I should post my introduction...
THE CASE FOR APPROPRIATION
a panel moderated by Joy Garnett
with Rob Storr, Virginia Rutledge and Oliver Wasow
Presented by BFA Visual & Critical Studies, SVA, Feb 16, 2012
It should be clear from the title of this session that our panel tonight is not structured as a debate between those with opposing views on appropriation. Nor is our purpose to parse the arguments put forward in recent high profile copyright infringement lawsuits, though I’m sure we will touch upon these during the course of the evening. Instead, our purpose here is to revisit the meaning and value of appropriation and to clarify its place in the visual arts; a place explicitly established in artistic practices since the birth of Modernism (and, actually, throughout human history). It is my hope that in doing so, we may begin to reframe this currently polarized and over-hyped debate, and bring forward a more productive narrative. To that end, I’ve invited speakers from different corners of the art world who approach the subject of appropriation according to their different backgrounds and vantage points: Oliver Wasow is a visual artist who teaches as well as curates; Rob Storr is a curator and art historian who teaches, and who is also an artist; and Virginia Rutledge is an attorney specializing in intellectual property law, who is also an art historian and a curator. Tonight they will bring their expertise to bear on the problem and importance of appropriation in visual art.
So. What is actually meant by “appropriation” and why do we need to make a case for it? Isn’t it the same thing as “copying”? and isn’t copying the same thing as “plagiarism”? Isn’t plagiarism and therefore appropriation a form of “theft”? why would anyone want to defend theft? By defending appropriation are we saying we are against private property? Are we against authors’ rights? Shouldn’t authors and artists be paid for their work? Isn’t the purpose of copyright to allow authors to stop others from using their work without permission? without paying? without attribution?
And so goes the logic that has brought us to this point.
Before I introduce our panelists, I will offer a brief consideration of appropriation and a few arguments as to why I think we, as artists, educators, students, curators, historians and law makers, need to make a case for it.
“Appropriation art” in the narrowest sense of the term, made its name during the nineteen eighties in New York. Drawing on earlier traditions of collage and montage up through Pop Art, appropriation artists subverted, re-photographed, and re-purposed topical material, paving the way for contemporary approaches to art-making now further enabled by digital technology.
The word “appropriation” is from the Latin root that means to “take as one’s own”. It carries some negative baggage, guilt acquired through association perhaps: for instance, the “wrongful appropriation” that is plagiarism. But broadly speaking, to appropriate something in visual art means basically to copy it, in order to use it or some aspect of it, for some creative purpose. So to “take as one’s own” becomes to remake as one’s own. Less loaded terms for appropriation might be “referencing” or “quoting”. Quotation is certainly a form of appropriation, and when we quote something as visual artists, using visual tools and visual language, we COPY it. In that sense, painting from life or en plein air, and by extension, the medium of photography itself, are nothing if not different forms of appropriation. Memory itself has been characterized as a form of appropriation.
Artists have always referenced and utilized – appropriated – pre-existing materials, including other art, as part of their source material, and as a way to engage in dialogue, whether through explicit copying or unconscious borrowing. Some may feel that where copying is achieved digitally, it crosses some ethical line, but digital technology has merely provided us with our latest set of tools for our age-old habits of copying and remixing.
So what am I saying – that what is really at stake here is Copying?
Fueled by the ongoing backlash against digital culture, common forms of visual quotation have come increasingly under attack. Copyright infringement lawsuits, many of them meritless, have been on the rise, including those brought by artists against fellow artists. The freedom to tinker, comment, reference or borrow – the way art progresses over time – is being undercut. At stake is our ability to work in what has become an atmosphere of increasing litigiousness, and hence, of paranoia and self-censorship.
The recent spike in copyright infringement litigation is nothing short of alarming – obscene, actually, considering the costs involved. There have been many controversial and high profile copyright infringement cases in the news, but we can be sure that there are many, many more cases than the ones you’ve read about in Artnet, Artinfo and The New York Times, and these involve non-celebrity artists who have neither access to legal expertise nor the deep pockets that would allow them to protect themselves. But the high profile cases are the ones that have generated an atmosphere of nervousness and dread that continues to spread by ripple effect throughout the art community. And the thing is, regardless of the eventual legal outcomes of these cases, their most negative effect has already been achieved. In law they call this a CHILLING EFFECT, which is when a legal action of any kind causes people to hesitate to exercise their legitimate right to express themselves for fear of legal repercussions. In reality it can be harmful in any number of ways, including to markets, but my concern mainly, is how chilling effects are harmful to artists.
Free speech and free expression: that is what is at stake here.
Free expression, as Princeton computer scientist Ed Felton puts it, requires the freedom to tinker. The inhibition of the freedom to tinker undercuts all creativity; it stops us from inquiring and from experimenting; it chills us in our pursuit of all that we, as artists and creative people, need to pursue. As citizens, all our civil rights begin with free speech; what is at stake then, is what is most basic.
Consider this, put forward by attorney and fair use advocate William Patry in an article about his most recent book on copyright reform – perhaps it’s not what you might expect to hear from an IP lawyer. Patry writes:
“Record companies, book publishers, movie studios and other media corporations are caught up in efforts to equate all copying of their works with theft. In fact, if we genuinely want to promote creativity, we must encourage copying. The idea that people copy because they lack creativity is powerfully harmful, and it runs counter to the history of copyright. [I must add: it runs counter to the history of making art]. To deny people the right to copy, intimately, from others, is to deny the essence of what it is to be a creative person.”
But if copying and appropriation are age-old and part of visual art’s lexicon, you may wonder, why the sudden backlash? When did our understanding (or misunderstanding) of appropriation change, and so radically? Perhaps we can blame the anti-piracy propaganda generated by the music and motion picture industries – their paranoia campaign has finally penetrated the art world’s walled garden. But rather than blame the music industry, we who are vested in the arts for whatever reason, must take responsibility for this problem by examining our own flawed assumptions. We need to think again and think hard about the conditions required for creativity; we need to revisit the complex and layered history of art-making itself. And as issues of appropriation enter the broader public and legal debate, artists, historians, curators and others who are part of the visual arts community need to step up and explain why appropriation and other forms of visual referencing are essential to the making of meaningful art. We need to be able to defend our practices in clear language, in and beyond the courtroom. We need to make the case for appropriation.
Virginia Rutledge is an art historian and attorney. Previously an exhibition associate at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, and the Vice President and General Counsel of the nonprofit Creative Commons, she is now in private practice focusing on art, intellectual property, and related transactions and ventures, both commercial and nonprofit. Virginia has chaired the Art Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association and was the curator of the 2011 Texas Biennial, a collaborative project involving over 60 contemporary visual arts organizations across the state.
Rob Storr is an artist, critic, curator and in 2006 was appointed Professor of Painting and Dean of the School of Art at Yale University. He was curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1990 to 2002. Mr. Storr has taught at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, at CUNY, the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, Rhode Island School of Design, Tyler School of Art, New York Studio School, and at Harvard. He has written numerous catalogs, articles, and books, and is the recipient of many honors and awards, too many to name here. He is currently Consulting Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in 2007 was chosen commissioner of the 2007 Venice Biennale, the first American invited to assume that position.
Oliver Wasow is an artist working with photography and other related media. He has participated in a number of major museum shows, such as “Image World” at the Whitney, and “Utopia/Post Utopia” at Boston’s ICA. His work will be included in the forthcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop,” to open in October 2012. He is the recipient of two grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award. In addition to his career as an artist, Mr. Wasow has also been involved in the art world in a curatorial capacity. From 1983 to 1987 he was the owner and director of The Cash/Newhouse Gallery in New York’s East Village, and he has organized a number of independent exhibitions. Most recently he has co-curated the exhibition “Artist Unknown,” an exhibition of thousands of vernacular images culled from the Internet at the Center for Art and Culture in Hollywood, Florida, (October 29, 2011–January 29,2012).
Joy Garnett is a painter, writer and media artist who lives in Brooklyn. Her paintings are based on found images of explosive events, while her social media performances examine the intersections of our digital and material worlds. She has written widely on the subject of fair use and copyright in the arts, and posts regularly about current developments to her blog Newsgrist; she also writes and edits for the contemporary media journal Cultural Politics, published by Duke University Press. Her work has been associated with appropriation art since 2004 when a controversy over one of her paintings reinvigorated the discussion about issues of authorship and fair use in the visual arts. She has been a vocal advocate for preserving our visual commons ever since.