In 2007, US artist Richard Prince was sued for theft. His accuser was French photographer Patrick Cariou, whose photos of Rastafarians Prince had torn out of a book, enlarged, painted over, and resold for as much as US$2.43 million each.
US copyright law allows artists to appropriate others’ intellectual property if they transform it into something new. But in high art, the standard for that transformation can seem low: a nearly unaltered photo that Prince once snapped of a Marlboro advertisement is now part of the collection of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. During Cariou v. Prince, the Met sent in a letter of support of the appropriation, while commercial photo agencies Getty Images and Corbis filed briefs in favor of Cariou. But the judges of the US Court of Appeals, where the case ended up, declared that Prince’s transformative use of paint and collage had to be visible to naked, inexpert eyes.
So on April 25, 2013, the Honorable B.D. Parker and Peter W. Hall pronounced their own art interpretations: 25 of Prince’s images were ruled “hectic and provocative” transformations of Cariou’s “serene” photos of “the natural beauty of Rastafarians.” The remaining five images were set aside for further investigation. A third judge dissented, claiming that he was not “trained to make art opinions.” Prince seemed to feel the same. When questioned about the transformative value of pasting a guitar onto a Rastafarian’s portrait, the artist explained, “[H]e’s playing the guitar now... that’s what my message was. To sort of tell people, hey, this guy is playing the guitar.”
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.