A court has ruled that Richard Prince's appropriated art is a copyright infringement. Is he betraying modern art?
I would probably feel more generous towards the famous artist Richard Prince, who has been ordered to destroy a series of works found to have infringed the copyright of photographer Patrick Cariou, if it were not for the fact that I happened to spend yesterday looking at the founding masterpieces of modern art ? at Manet's Olympia, and the enigmatic vegetable form of Rouen cathedral painted by Monet ? in the Mus�e d'Orsay in Paris. Modern art started as such a great experiment, such an awakening of the eye and mind. And it has come to this?
Wait, before you reject this as a conservative rant. I am aware that it is lazy to dismiss contemporary art out of hand. Think yourself into a black mood about it and the next thing you know, some genuinely brilliant video installation will come along to prove you foolish. The art of today abounds in interest. But ... it also includes Prince, which has to be a point against it.
Let us examine this news story. Prince and his gallery, Gagosian, have lost a case in which he was accused of taking a fistful of photographs published by Cariou, adding various daft decorations to them, and selling them as his own original artworks. He and Gagosian made millions of dollars from these "Richard Prince" works, which may now have to be repaid.
None of this will damage Prince's art-world reputation. Appropriation is what he does. He was one of the original wave of American postmodern artists who questioned the very ideas of originality and authorship by taking images directly from popular culture with only minor reworkings. He revels in a piratical, bad-boy reputation, and his response to this court ruling will be the equivalent of a cheeky grin, or indeed an actual cheeky grin.
The sophisticates will shrug it off, sighing at the cultural illiteracy of judges who do not understand the tradition of the readymade going back to Duchamp. Meanwhile, grumpy champions of "proper" art will see further evidence of the cynicism of today's art scene ? but who cares what they think when it is fetching such prices and attracting such crowds and will continue to do so?
Here is the horrible truth, which suits neither the stick-in-the-muds nor the champions of all things new. It is not in comparison to some supposed lost world of "proper" art that this episode is so unsettling. No. What is truly difficult to stomach is a comparison between the Princes of the contemporary art world, and the promise of modern art itself.
Look at the revolutionary art that changed the world, from the 1860s when Manet was painting Olympia to the 1960s when Andy Warhol was portraying Liz Taylor. Aren't you a tiny bit disappointed with the production, or appropriation, of today? Yet we tell ourselves all the time, in limitless coverage of the newest, shiniest, craziest stuff, that contemporary art is almost beyond criticism in its cultural value.
Why are admirers of contemporary art always on the defensive? Avant garde art is not going away. It has huge strengths ? the strongest being that it actually is contemporary; when you look at it you are looking at a picture of now. Even the most troubling aspects of the art market, such as the prices paid for these works, can be defended as a portrait of where we are, who we are (we are the culture that values Richard Prince).
But sometimes ? especially when you have been looking at Manet ? you have to allow yourself a grumble. Critics of contemporary art are wrong to dismiss it all sweepingly because of stories like this. But it is the kind of tale about today's artworld that should make even its biggest fan wonder for a moment if we are perhaps playing a big joke on ourselves for the entertainment of posterity.