Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
Back in the 80s, artist Richard Prince took a picture of a picture of the Marlboro Man and sold it as art. The original photo by Jim Krantz was part of an ad campaign to sell cigarettes. Talk about "branding!" What Prince did was liberate a cultural icon, the cowboy, from the sales force. His re-image is sort of a parody - humor so sophisticated that it's not even funny. The dialog between those two seemingly identical images is not about craft, but meaning.
Did Prince's copy lessen the value of the original photo? No, I'd say Krantz's stock went up on the notoriety of his cowboy and its doppelganger. Similarly, Shepard Fairey's "Obama" portrait, appropriated from an API photo, now hangs in the National Gallery with compliments from photographer Mannie Garcia.
Richard Prince compares the contextual effect of his work to the funny way that "certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we__™re home alone and play the same records ourselves." I get that. It also reminds me of how the musical group The Doors, in the final four notes of their hit song "Touch Me," took the tag line "stronger than dirt" from Ajax, the white knight of scouring powders, and freed up the underlying musical cadence in the name of art.
I too have scrawled portraits aplenty like my "Rod Serling" done after a publicity photo, but I don__™t sweat copyright issues thanks to the "parody" rule and fair use. My renditions look like cartoons. I also interpreted a dozen famous images from the Detroit Institute of Arts collection without once thinking that the DIA, or the artist's estates, might object. The fact that they sell my art cards in the gift shop is an encouraging sign.
I don't claim anyone else's idea or creation as my own and always give credit where due. Yet, in a world where everyone seems to be packing a picture phone or camcorder, there are bound to be duels in the gray areas. Frankly, I'm more wary of lifting musical motifs than visual imagery. There's something about a melodic fingerprint that keeps me from replicating too closely any existing tune - but I still scoff at the judge's decision that George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" plagiarized The Chiffon__™s "He's So Fine."
Then there__™s the vintage Indian-head TV test pattern that I recreated as a screen print. With a retro-style mahogany frame and a custom-cut 50's era gold metallic picture-tube mat, I elevated that antiquated broadcast paraphernalia into art. Since then, I've been looking over my shoulder thinking that RCA might have a bone to pick with me, especially when they learn I've been earning tens of dollars off of that familiar chart. I've stopped losing sleep though and I'm pretty sure they've let it slide - although with the stock market in its swoon, even corporate behemoths are scrounging revenues.
Television has come a long way. The picture quality is awesome. Of course, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are my only excuse for watching TV but, regarding art, it's hard to compare marks on paper with, say, a National Geographic special. Even the commercials are mind blowing. I was watching a hi-def fiber-optic hummingbird flit across an enchanted psychedelic landscape that stimulated my retinas like no Rembrandt or Picasso or cave painting ever could. It was an ad for some big-ass flat-screen HDTV and when the camera panned out, I saw that the product was the exact brand and model I was watching - a device with every bell and whistle short of an ice maker right there in the comfort of my living room. It was disquieting.
I needed to get outside, back to nature, so I took refuge in the bird sanctuary adjacent to my property where, I swear, I saw twelve acid-yellow warblers in one bush all whistling in full fidelity on this sunny spring day. I thought of snapping some pictures or recording the sounds, maybe do a color sketch and hone my craft like a real artist or jot down the cacophony in musical notation. But, no, I was just standing there having my grand think-fest without actually lifting a creative finger when all of a sudden...bam!
A bunch of hooded henchmen leaped out of the brush and overpowered me. Oh, I got in a couple good licks, but it all happened so fast that my vertical hold went haywire and my mind went on the blink. I was taken to a Quonset hut (with a familiar corporate logo on the door) beyond the duck pond where I was interrogated by a bevy of beautiful babes in skin-tight metallic jumpsuits just like in a beer commercial. They tried to get me to fess up about stealing the Indian-head TV test pattern but I was hip to their tactics and after a lengthy but not-unpleasant interlude we were joined by some paramilitary thugs. Oh, I knocked a beret or two off of their heads before they threw me in the pond much to the consternation of the ducks who hadn't seen me this irate since I fell through the ice a couple months earlier.
I schlepped back to the house pondering my total immersion in the arts: the creative process of melding disparate elements into something novel, a practice I defend for every artist, scientist, and philosopher in this swamp. Slogging across the patio, I can see my lovely wife in the window, a "what in the world?" expression on her face. Through the door wall I see my big-screen TV flashing more graphics and logos, all spinning and morphing in virtual reality, heralding the start of the hockey game. True story - except maybe for the part between the warblers and the ducks* - I'm still sorting out the details on that episode.
*(Not to be confused with the Ducks whom the Wings beat in seven.)