Court rulings rarely elicit juicy debates about the nature of art, authorship or authenticity – but the US Supreme Court is poised to make a judgement on precisely these ideas. The current farrago concerns the merits and pitfalls of reproducing a print by Andy Warhol and its potential repercussions have spooked some of the world’s biggest museums, from the Guggenheim to the Getty.
In 1984, Warhol made a series of silkscreen portraits of the musician Prince for Vanity Fair, using as his template a picture that photographer Lynn Goldsmith says she licensed to the magazine for single use. When Condé Nast published one of Warhol’s images after Prince’s death in 2016, Goldsmith challenged its right to have done so. The Andy Warhol Foundation disagreed and it has now fallen to the Supreme Court to decide who’s right. The outcome could influence an artist’s or publisher’s rights to take, use and reinterpret the work of others to create something new.
The court’s decision is pending but even in its current form, the case reveals the depleted levels of common sense in public discussion. The idea of appropriation casts a long shadow but can anyone seriously imagine the history of art without it? What about music, literature or film?
Let’s be pragmatic. Borrowing, reproducing and altering images, lyrics or ideas is part of the necessary push and pull of culture. Legal nuance – of which there is some – aside, the Supreme Court’s decision should leave wiggle room for artists, creatives and thinkers to be influenced by works around them. The verdict should acknowledge that doing so can create something new, original and worthwhile in the process. To fence off contemporary culture with inflexible copyright laws would be to mistake Warhol for a soup salesman.
Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s editor. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.