When Appropriation Masquerades as Reconceptualized Art

Works by Cariou, left, and Prince Works by Cariou, left, and Prince Courtesy Patrick Cariou

Richard Prince has long reveled in his pose as a postmodern pilferer of other people's images—in being what's known as an "appropriation artist." Most famously, in 1980 he began taking pictures of Marlboro Man magazine advertisements—rephotographing them—stripped of logos and text. And now his sticky-fingered status has been officially confirmed by U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts, who slammed him this week for not just appropriating, but misappropriating, dozens of works from another artist. The ruling has the art world's appropriators reeling—one blogger called the ruling "kafkaesque"—as the rarefied, anything-goes realm of conceptual art runs up against the hard-nosed realities of intellectual-property rights.

The images Mr. Prince used for a 2008 show in Manhattan came overwhelmingly from a book, "Yes, Rasta," by French photographer Patrick Cariou, who had spent six years taking pictures of Rastafarians in Jamaica. Mr. Prince made photographic copies of dozens of these images, blew them up and then added his own touches. Some he simply distressed or tinted. To others he added some paint or collaged in bits of other appropriated images: For instance, he drew some sunglasses on a Rasta man in the jungle and put an electric guitar in his hands. Mr. Prince and his agents, the Gagosian Gallery, were able to sell and barter these works for close to $20 million.

Mr. Cariou understandably cried foul. It wasn't just that he wasn't seeing any of those millions for what was, in large part, his work. A gallery owner who had planned to exhibit the original Cariou photos balked after the Prince show because, as she told the court, "she did not want to exhibit work which had been 'done already' at another gallery." Mr. Cariou's work hadn't just been lifted, the judge ruled, but "usurped."

Additional Info

back to top