Donald Graham takes a photo of a Rastafarian man. Jay Kirton re photographs the image and uploads the image onto a social media account adding comments. Artist Richard Prince uses the same social media image and text, enlarges it and displays it in the Gagosian Gallery who then sells the social media ‘image’ for thousands of dollars.
The first question to be asked here is one of ownership. As Graham initiated the sequence of events and one presumes the Rastafarian man was a willing participant in the original image’s creation, ownership of the source image must be Graham’s.
Kirton’s uploading of the image without permission falls into the area of the law entitled ‘Fair Use’ mainly as he wasn’t profiting from the image just using it in a tweet.
Prince on the other hand has cleverly manipulated the circumstances as he
- Didn’t take the original
- Didn’t put it on the social media site
- Got a gallery interested in his ‘appropriated tweet image’ and profited from it.
Has he stolen Graham’s image?
English law as written in the Theft Act 1968 states theft as a ‘Dishonest appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.’
Graham still has the original image, Prince made a copy of an existing copy of the image so theft doesn’t apply in these circumstances. Legally Prince has committed no crime, he didn’t appropriate the original image, but morally he has transgressed the un-written rule of respecting another artist’s work. A strong image remains a strong image even after its been copied and by using a copy of a strong image, Prince can attempt to claim it’s a new piece of work.
The copyright situation here is far from simple. The first breach of copyright was by Kirton putting the image onto social media, but as this is good publicity for Graham and neither Kirton or the social media site were profiting from the posting he didn’t challenge it.
Prince on the other hand has profited considerably from the use of the copy of Graham’s work, especially as the original image was only manipulated in a minor way (the addition of the text), and its this that appears to have upset Graham.
So the next question to ask is whether Prince’s appropriated image is a new piece of art?
Firstly the issue is the similarity to Graham’s original work and must be a consideration. The image is virtually the same except for the surrounding frame which contains the social media text, but it is a copy and with all things copied, image degradation can occur.
Next we must consider the medium used. The original was a photograph. The social media image was a screen image. The gallery version was a digital representation of the screen image.
The problem with a strong photograph is that it can be copied many times before it starts to look different to the original. With digital copies there is no difference. Therefore as there was only minute differences in quality (print versus screen image) the next thing to examine is context.
Context in part relates to the message being delivered by the image. In the original image the context relates to a social comment on Rastafarianism.
In the social media version the context is pretty much the same even though the medium has changed.
In Princes version the context is a comment related to social media as he has extracted a slice of social media taking it from its original context and displayed it in a gallery thus changing the context completely.
So does a new context equal new art?
In my opinion, not in this case. The ‘hook’ which draws you in to look at Prince’s image closer is Graham’s photograph. If you remove the photograph the piece of art fails to work so compellingly. If you replace the image with another it might work but knowing Prince this would court the same controversy as no doubt he would use another photographers work. Strong images are essential to the success of Prince’s work, it’s a shame he doesn’t care about using others work to further his own brand of art. If there is no strong image, Prince’s art fails.