Where Does Art Ownership Begin and End?

In the age of Internet, when anyone can access art with a quick search, the inevitability of stolen work seems a little daunting and unfair. It feels like every other week we hear more stories about big name clothing stores selling someone else’s designs for $24.99. Using another’s work without credit for profit is unjust, and funnels money away from the originator of the piece. But what about when one creative uses another’s work to make something creative for themselves? Artists Tayler Smith and Arabelle Sicardi recently had their work used without permission by Yale student, Zak Arctander, which have raised questions about ownership in art.

The artistic duo found out about the re-appropriation of their photo series when Arctander’s work showed up in Hilton Als’ write up for The New Yorker concerning Yale’s MFA photography show. Arctander used a photo from Smith and Sicardi’s series Most Important Ugly featuring model Hari Nef. The Yale student printed the photo on vinyl in black and white, then layered the image with graffiti. In the article the piece, titled "Cheeks," is credited as ‘Photograph by Zak Arctander.’ It seems strangely appropriate, in light of the controversy, that Als chose to name his article ‘The Freedom of Young Photographers.’

And what freedom do artists have in an age where everything is accessible, printable, download-able? The music industry has wholly accepted ‘sampling’ as a viable technique. Songs pull from the old and the new all the time. What about Richard Prince’s controversial use of Instagram screenshots? Can the idea of ‘sampling’ be applied to a more physical medium of art, and if it can’t, how do you regulate it? While we’re all so reliant on the Internet, the concept is still only about 20 years old. Its uses and innovations are very new and the morality behind it all becomes murky.

While Arctander and Als have not made any comments about the theft accusations, James Danziger, the owner of Danziger Gallery (where "Cheeks" is showing) issued a statement to Jezebel regarding the piece, “I feel that this falls well within what would be considered legitimate appropriation and transformative use.” So it seems the real distinction here is when a reworking of an art piece is transformed. In our Internet-saturated world, art appropriation happens a lot. The question you have to ask is: when does it become stolen? The claim of originality is hard to decipher. It’s tough to say that someone came up with a completely new idea since art is often inspired by or reminiscent of other art. When does a piece stop being yours and become something else?

Top photo courtesy of Tayler Smith & Arabelle Sicardi

"Cheeks" courtesy of Zak Arctander

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