From Meme Culture to Music Sampling, What Art is “Okay” to Steal?

Photo by Alfred Gescheidt via Getty images

Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine, recently Instagrammed his own tweet storm on the topic of artist copyright. As a fan of Saltz, someone who doesn’t blink at an unattributed meme and a woman with a vested interest in artistic integrity, I read with rapt interest:

Artists: Read this. Upper left to lower right. No matter what you think – it is so. 🌿🌿 1. Artists use materials. Images are materials. EVERY photographer crying when Richard Prince TOTALLY transforms one of their idiot images IS A FAKE.⚫️⚫️🌿🌿 2. ALL the crap fake artists who cry, whine & sue other artists have no idea what art is, that copyright is dead & will die never knowing art⚫️🌿🌿 3. “Lawless, winged & unconfined & breaks all chains from every mind.” – William Blake -Now do they fucking get get it? Stand down fake photographers. 🌿🌿 4. Anyone can take ANYTHING from me. YOU can publish MY work as YOURS; make $ from it; change it. Artists use materials. Writing is material. 🌿🌿 Take anything you want from me; anything. Break your middle-class chains; don’t fear the unknown; look up Keats (1817) “negative capability.” 🌿🌿 Art contains multitudes. 🌀🌀🌀 PS. Who gives a shit if an artist is dickish!?!?! You do not get it. Picasso was dickish. I know many many many artists who have been dickish when it comes to the number-one MOST IMPORATNT THING!!! Their art! You dick! 🌀🌀🌀 Further: Darlings ANYTHING is fair game. Look around art schools. Every artist is steeling everything all the time. A color. A surface. An idea!!! Sleeper awake. Or your work will die. Xx 🌀🌀🌀🌀🌀 #MarkMe “Punk rock is about freedom. I’ll sing any fucking song I want.” – Patti Smith 🌰🌰🌰 I do not think you can proceed in art without grasping this basic notion. It is that important. Xo

A post shared by Jerry Saltz (@jerrysaltz) on

I appreciated Saltz’ choice to photograph his own words and then copy them into the caption. I hope that was intentionally ironic. And kudos to Harling for calling it: IG captions are the new blogs.

My interpretation of his thesis — which I’ve been noodling over for a while — is that all art is imitation, in some form. And that artists should be allowed to use anything they want to make their art, and even profit from it. That said, if your work is shitty and unoriginal, you’ll get called out, at least by Saltz. Proof can be found in his critiques here, here, here and in the details of his own artistic failings. But I think he’s saying imitation isn’t inherently wrong and that, done well, it can lead to original work.

In making that thesis though, he gives a green light to all stealing. Stop whining, he says. But isn’t it more nuanced than that? Pharrell’s transformation of Collage’s 1983 single is different from Urban Outfitters making T-shirts based on someone else’s drawing is different from @officialseanpenn reposting a meme without attribution is different from street artist Thierry Guetta using the likeness of Run DMC is different from Kendall and Kylie Jenner superimposing their faces on images of legendary rappers, right?

Or is Saltz saying it’s all fair game?

His reference to a 2014 Richard Prince art show (which Saltz mentions in his tweet) hints that’s exactly what he’s saying, so long as the “stealing” is done for art’s sake. But today, with capitalism and art so intimately linked, could such a distinction ever be objectively made? Prince’s controversial show was essentially a gallery of women’s Instagram photos blown up and hung on a wall. Saltz dubbed it “genius trolling” in his review:

“As for [Prince] ‘stealing other people’s pictures,’ my view of an artist using other people’s Instagram pics is no different than an artist using any other material. By now, we have to agree that images — even digital ones — are materials, and artists use materials to do what they do. Period. In my way of thinking, too many artists are too wed to woefully outmoded copyright notions – laws that go against them in almost every case.”

Apparently Prince sold those pieces for $40,000 a pop.

It’s true that the law disagrees with Saltz in some measure. As Art News explains, courts consider purpose, nature, sustainability and marketability when determining whether art has been appropriated illegally. The definition hasn’t changed in a long time, and the internet has catalyzed a rise in copyright infringement lawsuits as a result. Whether this is a bur in the paw of high art or a protection for vulnerable artists is hotly debated.

I want to agree with Saltz because I appreciate that he knows more than I do about art (duh). But I can’t stop thinking about one word that’s missing from his rant: Power. At what point do systemic power structures come into play? Doesn’t this free-wheeling, anything-goes approach to art seem more realistic in a world devoid of oppressive power imbalances?

Power is at the center of the conversation on cultural appropriation, too. As Antonia Opiah wrote for Teen Vogue: “[C]ultural appropriation only exists because the world isn’t fair. Opportunity isn’t really as equal as we think it is and people are unfairly characterized, which has consequences. Cultural appropriation would be the cultural exchange everybody wants and loves IF it were occurring on an even playing field, but it’s not.”

I wonder what role power plays in Saltz’ view of art. Art and commerce can only be separate in an ideal world, one that’s far from ours. The reality is, it’s easier for some people to make money off their art than others. And that’s often because of an unfair playing field. Power matters, right? Below each of the Instagram images Prince chose, you can see a comment he left on it. If that’s not a literal comment on power, I don’t know what is.

So where does it become an artist’s responsibility to consider power imbalances when he or she steals, imitates, appropriates? If it’s a choice between limiting an artist’s point of view (thus potentially making all art suffer) and stealing from another person, where is the line drawn? Artists, consumers of it and everyone in between, what do you think? I’m genuinely asking.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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