Thursday, April 17, 2008

Artistic intent, art interpretation, and the transformative nature of appropriation art

Are we really going to require an inquiry into an appropriation artist's purposes in determining whether the appropriation is "transformative"? As Sister Wendy Beckett explains in the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, in words that are so well accepted they are almost trite,
The passageway provided by art is very wide. No single interpretation of art is ever “right,” not even the artist's own. He or she can tell us the intent of the work, but the actual meaning and significance of the art, what the artist achieved, is a very different matter. (It is pitiable to hear the grandiose discussions of artists' work by the least talented of our contemporaries.) We should listen to the appreciations of others, but then we should put them aside and advance toward a work of art in the loneliness of our own truth. Each of us encounters the work alone, and how much we receive from it is wholly the effect of our will to accept this responsibility.
What was Jackson Pollock's purpose in painting Lavender Mist? Van Gogh's in painting The Irises? Haven't we accepted by now the limitations focus on artistic intention would impose on our appreciation of art? Yet, in Blanch v. Koons, 467 F.3d 244, 252-53 (2d Cir. 2007)(emphasis added), the Second Circuit, in holding that Jeff Koons' appropriation of a copyrighted photograph constituted fair use, based its conclusion that Koons' use of the photograph was "transformative" precisely on Koons' statements regarding what he intended:

Koons asserts -- and Blanch does not deny -- that his purposes in using Blanch's image are sharply different from Blanch's goals in creating it. Compare Koons Aff. at P4 ("I want the viewer to think about his/her personal experience with these objects, products, and images and at the same time gain new insight into how these affect our lives.") with Blanch Dep. at 112-113 ("I wanted to show some sort of erotic sense[;] . . . to get . . . more of a sexuality to the photographs."). The sharply different objectives that Koons had in using, and Blanch had in creating, "Silk Sandals" confirms the transformative nature of the use. See Bill Graham Archives, 448 F.3d at 609 (finding transformative use when defendant's purpose in using copyrighted concert poster was "plainly different from the [*253] original purpose for which they were created"); see also 17 U.S.C. § 107(1) (first fair-use factor is the "purpose and character of the use" (emphasis added)).

Koons is, by his own undisputed description, using Blanch's image as fodder for his commentary on the social and aesthetic consequences of mass media.Castle Rock Entm't, 150 F.3d at 142 (quoting Leval, supra, 103 Harv. L. Rev, at 1111). When, as here, the copyrighted work is used as "raw material," Castle Rock Entm't, 150 F.3d at 142 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), in the furtherance of distinct creative or communicative objectives, the use is transformative. Id.; see also Bill Graham Archives, 448 F.3d at 609 (use of concert posters "as historical artifacts" in a biography was transformative); Leibovitz v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 137 F.3d 109, 113 (2d Cir. 1998) (parody of a photograph in a movie poster was transformative when "the ad [was] not merely different; it differ[ed] in a way that may reasonably be perceived as commenting" on the original). His stated objective is thus not to repackage Blanch's "Silk Sandals," but to employ it "'in the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.'"

The test for whether "Niagara's" use of "Silk Sandals" is "transformative," then, is whether it "merely supersedes the objects of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message." Campbell, 510 U.S. at 579 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted, alteration incorporated); Davis, 246 F.3d at 174 (same). The test almost perfectly describes Koons's adaptation of "Silk Sandals": the use of a fashion photograph created for publication in a glossy American "lifestyles" magazine -- with changes of its colors, the background against which it is portrayed, the medium, the size of the objects pictured, the objects' details and, crucially, their entirely different purpose and meaning -- as part of a massive painting commissioned for exhibition in a German art-gallery space. We therefore conclude that the use in question was transformative.

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