Canal Zone Richard Prince Yes Rasta: Selected Court Documents, &c., &c

Greg.org
New York (2011)
Ed. Greg Allen

[I]n any artwork I don’t think there’s any one message. I’m not a political artist. If you can tell me who the president of France was when Gauguin was in Tahiti, I’ll give you a thousand dollars. Politicians come and go, art comes and comes.

–Richard Prince, deposition for Patrick Cariou vs. Richard Prince, et al.

I.

In 2001, photographer Patrick Cariou took a series of landscapes and portraits of Rastafarians in Jamaica, for publication in a book called Yes, Rasta. On the basis of those images, Cariou was offered an exhibition at a commercial gallery in New York. While on vacation in St. Barts in 2007, Richard Prince bought Cariou’s book and collaged a grid of pages he had torn from Yes, Rasta onto fiberboard, painting on some of them and leaving others as they were. He called the collage Canal Zone, after his birthplace in the Panama Canal Zone, and included it in an exhibition of the same title at the Eden Rock Hotel in St. Barts. Prince extended Canal Zone into a series of paintings that incorporated figures and landscapes lifted from Cariou’s book. The series was shown in Prince’s first solo exhibition with the Gagosian Gallery in New York, who also handled the St. Barts sales. Gallerist Christiane Celle later canceled a show of Cariou’s work because she did not want to appear to be capitalizing on Prince’s success, and because she did not want to exhibit work which had been “done already” at another gallery. As authors possess the copyright for any work they create, they alone decide how and whether to sell, modify, distribute, or display their work. Cariou alleged that, in copying his photographs without permission, Prince infringed on Cariou’s copyright.

The intended motive behind copyright law is money, not meaning. Because Prince’s infringement allegedly cost Cariou his show, Cariou argued that Prince’s infringement caused Cariou damages. In Cariou v. Prince, the defense claimed that “fair use” laws protected the Canal Zone paintings. Judge Deborah Batts of the Southern District Court of New York ultimately disagreed. While most cases that examine the substance of an artist’s project err on the side of leniency, Judge Batts decided in Cariou’s favor on the grounds that for fair-use to apply, an infringing artwork must be substantially “transformative.” Based on Prince’s at times bombastic deposition, in which he stated “I don’t really make comments with any of my work,” Judge Batts declared Prince’s works to be insufficiently transformative under the rules of fair-use.

Like any legal case, Cariou v. Prince yielded a glut of documents, including a 300-page transcript of the seven-hour videotaped deposition of Richard Prince. Greg Allen, an artist and the proprietor of art blog greg.org, took a strong interest in these texts, particularly Prince’s deposition—which, Allen noted, was the longest public interview Prince had ever granted. The result is Canal Zone Richard Prince YES RASTA, a self-published scrapbook-style curiosity compiling several documents key to the case, including the deposition transcript and Judge Batts’s summary judgment in Cariou’s favor. The texts are conventional in the legal sphere, but provide an unusually (and involuntarily) candid presentation of Prince’s methodology, and of the business of art itself. The question presented by this collection of texts is, what happens when art, and the sensibilities that adhere the art world, collide with the law and with the outside world? How is an artwork defined, and by whom can it be declared legitimate?


II.

From Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa to Warhol’s Last Supper cycle to Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans photos, the most renowned practitioners of appropriation art, including Prince, almost always point to the cultural provenance of their borrowed goods. Prince’s “Marlboro Men” are easily recognizable to a consumer public; his naughty Nurse figures, filched from pulp novel covers, are accompanied by their original book titles. The Canal Zone imagery, however, is unplaceable.

In his videotaped deposition, Prince claims to have “never been interested in what’s actually there,” and in his affidavit he refers to Cariou’s figures and landscapes simply as “ingredients.” It is an unconvincing claim: Prince is picky about his subject matter. The naughty nurses and Marlboro men make clear references to their sources, but Prince does not make a clear reference with his appropriation of Cariou’s Rastas; all the viewer has is what’s actually there. Furthermore, in the Canal Zone paintings, Prince seems to have been particularly drawn to an aesthetic quality. This is most apparent in Charlie Company (2008), in which a Cariou Rasta on a donkey is printed four times in a grid with slight variation in size (“an homage to Warhol’s style,” per Prince’s affidavit), with white ovular “lozenges” painted over his eyes, nose, and mouth, resembling a gasmask.

As Prince himself said in a discussion at the Whitney in 1992, “If you’re going to steal something, you know—you go to the bank.” Patrick Cariou is not the bank. His portraits have been published in three monographs—Surfers, Gypsies, and Yes, Rasta—by coffee table imprint powerHouse, which has also put out volumes for such renowned photographers as Kehinde Wiley, John Coplans, Jack Pierson—and for Richard Prince; Cariou also does occasional editorial work for fashion magazines and Travel+Leisure. But in the currency of cultural cache, Cariou is of low value. This changes Prince’s proposition for appropriation art, and distinguishes the Canal Zone paintings from the rest of Prince’s oeuvre: rather than appropriating imagery from cultural icons, he does so from an artist with a relatively marginal career.

It must be noted that Prince never tried to pass off Cariou’s work as his own. Anyone spending millions on Prince’s work knows him as an appropriation artist; when you buy a Prince painting, you patronize a conceptual contribution as well as an image.

But when an appropriation artist’s sources are so esoteric that they are unrecognizable, perhaps he crosses the line between appropriation and plundering.


III.

Copyright is an uncomfortable meeting point between law and art. In the United States, copyright is guaranteed by the Constitution, which empowers Congress “To promote the Progress of...useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors...the exclusive Right to their respective Writings.” Behind copyright law lies the hope that, when authors’ works are protected from unauthorized copying, they have a greater incentive to create original works.

Six basic rights are granted to the creator of an original work by copyright: the rights to reproduce the work, create derivative works based on the work, distribute copies, publicly display, perform, and transmit the work. Generally, a person may not copy another person’s work without permission. However, the law has carved out certain exceptions to this general rule, based on the principle that when copying another’s work positively promotes the “progress of useful arts,” that act of copying should be protected.

While the accuser deals with form, defense deals with intent: What were the imitator’s intentions? If the copyist intended to make commentary on the original work—specifically criticism, parody, or instructive reporting (as in a lecture or essay)—then the copyist is in the clear.

In Prince’s deposition, however, he declares, “I don’t really make comments with any of my work.” To anyone familiar with Prince, this answer is hardly surprising. Contemporary art belief has it that the act of appropriation itself inherently changes the meaning of an object or image. Legally, though, meaning can’t be thought to change simply by virtue of the fact of its being copied—copyright law would not exist otherwise. This inherent tension is clear in Cariou v. Prince; while the defense addresses the substance rather than the form of Prince’s works, the subtle inherent change of intent is not enough to “transform” an original work.


IV.

Judge Batts’s opinion may seem stodgy and absurd to the art-minded reader, just as appropriated imagery as original artwork is irreconcilable with current thinking in the realm of copyright. Judge Batts may not be wrong in her application of the law, but the law seems to write itself out of all relevance in this decision.

To argue against appropriation is to put oneself on the wrong side of history. In the context of art, the implications of such a stance are even graver, implying an outdated reverence for originality and authorship, values that concern contemporary art discourse just about as much as chivalry and filial piety. Appropriation art is such an accepted part of the contemporary vernacular that some already find it passé—or at the very least no longer trendy. Gagosian isn’t exactly at the forefront of art discourse; perhaps the texts of Cariou v. Prince reintroduce the still-revolutionary possibilities of Prince’s proposition within the broader, non-art context. The court takes the role of the beleaguered parent who has just discovered that her child is having sex, to the point where Judge Batts employs pointed scare quotes in her introduction of “appropriation art” as a term.

Still, the art world has a nostalgic self-image, and it doesn’t abide by litigious leanings. Why did Cariou take this art question into a legal arena? The art world still fancies itself a hotbed of strong personalities engaged in fierce debate, like Barnett Newman panning Mark Rothko in his letters. But of course, it is not that kind of realm anymore; the art world is hierarchical and nouveau-riche. Cariou doesn’t have a platform in the art world; Prince does. How else could he have made himself heard?

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