Dear art world: Why is stealing a wallet not appropriation art?


Art, General Culture

It’s a few weeks after the latest Richard Prince brouhaha, and as expected things haven’t changed. The art world has come down on the side of Richard Prince, with the argument basically being that it’s a terrible ruling for appropriation art because it’s a terrible ruling for appropriation art. I might be missing something, but in none of the articles I’ve read any of the defenders of Richard Prince has given an actual explanation of why this particular case is a valid case of appropriation art other than “He took that other guy’s stuff, and that’s what appropriation artists do.” Or “obviously it is fair use/transformative.” Well, if it’s so obvious why not explain it properly? (more)

Needless to say, as I indicated in my earlier post that’s not a particularly good way to deal with this issue. Add to that a little of a generalized outcry how art in general is in danger because of this, and we’re left with, let’s face it, nothing.

So dear art world, here’s your chance to do a little better.

Imagine someone stole someone else’s wallet. Imagine the someone who stole the wallet is calling himself an appropriation artist. Imagine our appropriation artist then took the contents of the wallet, cut up the money, credit cards, and photographs and slapped them all, along with the torn wallet itself, on a huge canvas, also adding some paint. Imagine our artist named the whole thing “Oooga, oooga (21st Century Capitalism)” and added a “statement” (you’d get the full art-world package). That’s appropriation art, isn’t it?

I have an inkling that the art world would have a considerably harder time defending our wallet artist than they did when they defended Richard Prince. First, stealing a wallet very obviously is theft, and we all don’t like theft. Second, while it’s straightforward to defend the act as appropriation art, most serious art critics would probably realize that in fact it is not. I personally don’t think it is anyway (it’s just a thought experiment).

So here’s my question: Why is stealing a wallet (physical property) not OK, whereas stealing a photo (intellectual property) is?

Art world, please explain.

In particular, I (and a lot of other people, including a great many photographers) would like to learn why stealing a wallet to create “Oooga, oooga (21st Century Capitalism)” is not fair use, whereas stealing photographs to create “Canal Zone” is.

I’ll collect your answers (the blog posts - “tweets” won’t do), and post the links here later (in a future post).

PS: I know perfectly well what appropriation art is and how it works. I also know quite a bit about copyright, fair use and the aspect of transformation. But I want to hear it from you, dear art world, because I don’t think you’ve done a very good job at all so far.