Saturday, February 21, 2009

Looking for the Perfect Beat

Marilyn Diptych © Andy Warhol
Over the past month or so an art appropriation perfect storm has been battering the cultural landscape. Richard Prince was sued for his use of Patrick Cariou's Rastafarian photos in his series, Canal Zone, and Sheppard Fairey was sued (and counter-sued) the AP for use of a photograph to create his now iconic Obama poster.

While those two incidents were being debated ad nauseum in the blogosphere, classrooms, and at cocktail parties across the country, the Beastie Boys reissued their landmark album, Paul's Boutique, without a hint of controversy.

Why mention Paul's Boutique?

Because in 1989 the Beastie Boys and the Dust Brothers created a work that stands as one of the single greatest concentrations of appropriated material in the history of popular culture. When it was first released, Paul's Boutique sent music fans on a decade long mining excavation to undercover the original source of every sample on album. Why the ruckus over Richard Prince and Sheppard Fairey appropriating work and nary a peep about the reissue of a sample-happy classic? Perhaps folks were too busy shaking their rump to muster the moral outrage.

It has been almost 50 years since Andy Warhol first exhibited work created from a publicity photograph of Marylin Monroe. It's been almost 35 years since the fair use doctrine became part of our copyright law. In that time we have seen countless examples of brilliant new work created by borrowing elements of existing material. And, we have seen countless examples of appropriated work fueling new interest and respect for the original artist.

As an artist, I understand the need for unlimited access to inspiration. But, I can also understand the desire to see your work remain as you intended and the potential for anger when someone else claims elements as their own. Which interest should prevail?

In searching for answers to this issue, my husband pointed me to this brilliant video on the history of the Amen Break. The author makes a remarkably compelling case that appropriation and flexible copyright laws are the foundation of cultural innovation.

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