Keep the Appropiation Going

In 1968 a Che Guevara by Andy Warhol is presented in Italy. The same year and country in which Giangiacomo Feltrinelli published Diario en Bolivia, accompanied by a poster whose origin coincides with that of the new pop portrait: the photo taken by Alberto Korda on March 3, 1960 in Havana. Only Warhol’s poster bears the mark of the Factory, that Fordism made aesthetics based on the serial reproduction of objects and subjects until they became icons of mass consumption.

Mao and the soup can, Marilyn and the dollar sign, Elvis and Liz…

There is, however, a small problem. Although it mimics his style and manner of execution, the painting presented at the La Tartaruga gallery in Rome was neither made nor authorized by Warhol. It is by his assistant Malanga, an artist who is in Bergamo presenting his film In Search of the Miraculous.

Malanga’s passport is about to expire. He has no return ticket to New York. Nor funds to buy it. His boss is not returning his calls. There is no miracle in sight.

There is nothing to do but to act…

When Warhol learns, thanks to Leo Castelli, of the Italian fuss over his Che, he is furious; but he immediately smells the possibility of money and calms down. We already know, thanks to another pop diva named María Félix, that “money calms the soul.” So Andy resorts to that diazepam to which he is also addicted and decides not to accuse the assistant of plagiarizing him, but of selling his work without permission. Then he approaches the till, collects what belongs to him as author and ends up certifying the veracity of that old refrain from a town in Cuba called Unión de Reyes: Malanga is screwed.

It’s very likely that Warhol didn’t know that photo had been taken by a guy named Korda. But, obviously, he did know it wasn’t his. Not that he cared too much either. He was always an expert at claiming copyright on other people’s work. In applying the industrial reproduction of capitalism to art. And in propping up, with all that, his proximity to greatness.

Hadn’t Picasso done the same with the newspaper Le Figaro in his collages, or Duchamp with his mustachioed Mona Lisa? Hadn’t the previous year seen the first global satellite broadcast starring the Beatles who opened “All You Need is Love” with the chords of La Marseillaise?

Compare to that, who is this Korda guy that he can’t be cannibalized unceremoniously?

If Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown called to learn from all things, Andy Warhol came to this world to apprehend them all. And that’s what he did —within reason, of course, he was not a kamikaze— until his death and beyond.

Well, appropriationism —that great “ism” of Contemporary Art— has just suffered a notable setback. Precisely, because of a lawsuit against Warhol that reopens the recurrent litigation about his series and the possibility of considering them, definitively, fraudulent.

Andy Warhol’s Che Guevara

This time, with another famous dead man as the main character: Prince.

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith believes that Warhol used, without changes, her portrait of the musician for Vanity Fair without authorization or variation. And she wants her rights acknowledged. For Goldsmith, the 1981 Prince Series —6 lithographs with the singer’s image— are not “appropriation,” but mere “reproduction” and “a clear case of plagiarism.”

The first report that I read in Spanish on the subject —a link sent to me by a collector but still a friend— was published belatedly in the newspaper La Razón and bears the signature of Pedro Alberto Cruz. A critic and professor, Cruz does not limit himself to inform his readers. He not only exposes the facts of the case, but also breaks them down, predicting a “domino effect” that would delegitimize one of the art standards of the 20th century. If Goldsmith’s lawsuit succeeds, the author says, the tide would quickly reach artists as famous (and rich) as Richard Prince, Jeff Koons or Sherrie Levine. Let’s say that the artist’s intention on behalf of their freedom would be annulled on behalf of legality. And the castle that, since the ready-made, had been erected in the name of appropriation, would collapse in the name of repositioning.

This issue, which is not new, brings up once again the always complicated relationship between property and freedom. Also the belongings put at stake during the successive phases of production, circulation, and consumption of works. Something quite shocking in this cut-and-paste era in which originality is as impossible as novelty is essential. The trial, moreover, would not be limited to the present. When opening this specific Pandora box, the consequences would reverberate in Bob Dylan and the cubists, Francis Bacon and surrealism, Hemingway and Eliot, Shakespeare and Borges, Gershwin and Bernstein.

As lawsuits come and go, the old guardianships of the authorship of works clash with the defenses of their free circulation without tolls. If these cultural giants have gobbled up each other while still gaining prestige and wealth, isn’t this reason enough for us to serve ourselves, as if we were in an open bar, the guarapo[1] resulting from their sugar mills? Assuming that authors steal from each other, does it make sense that they entangle us in their fatuous spider’s web that compartmentalizes originality and copying, what belongs to others and what is our own?

The “no” as an answer to these questions had already been offered, decades ago, by Lewis Hide, an essayist who assumes art as a gift in the sense of “donating” and “giving,” of offering and present. Art as a concession through which, more than a transaction, we establish a connection that exceeds the magnitudes of the State, the Market or the Law.

And another more resounding “no” can be found in a controversial essay by Jonathan Lethem that leaves the usual criteria on literary or artistic property shaking. To give an example, almost all the lines in his text have been “acquired” from other authors, times and circumstances. Thus, in “The Ecstasy of Influences,” published in 2007, the Brooklyn novelist challenges the chain of appropriations, thefts, expropriations, syntheses or exchanges that complicate the adjudication, in absolute ownership, of many and very celebrated works throughout the centuries.

Lethem takes as his starting point a 1916 story by Heinz von Lichberg that deals with the fascination of an adult man for an underage girl. The title of the story is, in turn, the name of the adolescent girl: Lolita. A Lolita that appeared forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s famous novel of the same title. It is pertinent to ask whether Nabokov, who lived in Berlin until 1936, was familiar with Lichberg’s work and consciously exploited it. Or if, on the contrary, he had suffered the effects of “cryptomnesia,” that memory hidden in the subconscious that zigzags uncontrollably between our secret archive and our public works. A not entirely reliable memory that, although it does not exactly turn you into a plagiarist, it does strike directly at your claim to originality.

While Lethem knows perfectly well that a liberal society cannot exist without private property, he also intuits that “there are things that the term ‘property’ does not capture.” And this is so because works of art exist “simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy.” In the former, a transaction takes place. In the second, “a sentimental bond between two people.”

These and other equally juicy notions are the backbone of this brief and intense essay, which begins by evoking the original Lolita and ends by questioning the pedestal of ownership on which art is perched. All these Lolitas weave a series in installments that takes us from Lichberg to Nabokov, from Stanley Kubrick to Adrian Lyne, from naming any non-adult and desirable girl to defining a category of the porn industry…

Do you know how much we pay the forgotten Lichberg every time we get involved with each of them?


Lynn Goldsmith’s photograph of Prince that Warhol took as the basis for his lithographic series.

If Harold Bloom lived in anguish over the ecstasy of influences, Jonathan Lethem recommends that we revel in their ecstasy. If appropriation is valid for painting, writing or making music, how can it not be valid for looking and reading and freely listening to the results?

This Western society in which some people now protest against appropriation is the same Western society that hoards ninety percent of all African art. How many millions have its canonical museums collected every time they exhibit this heritage? Lots. How many millions have they transferred to Africa to alleviate this historical usurpation? None.

(Only now it has begun a lukewarm policy of return, more fetishistic than substantial.)

When the 2008 crisis hit Greece, I think it was the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who proposed paying one euro to that country every time we used the words “democracy,” “logic,” or “economy”. (This would settle the Greek debt.)

It is clear that we have all “discovered” at one time or another an idea, a concept, an artist, or an author with which others have made a profit. And it is even clearer that we all have to be paid for our work (which is sometimes appropriated by a plagiarist and always by an employer).

But, at this point, it does not make much sense to bring before the courts an appropriation that, since the dawn of time, has been synonymous with culture. With this, the law would do nothing but keep gasping while trying to catch up with the facts. Attempting to maintain in an internal circuit a world that already moves in open code.

[1] In Cuba, sugar cane juice usually served with ice. (T. N.)

Iván de la Nuez. Essayist and curator. Among his books are La Balsa Perpetua [The Perpetual Raft], El Mapa de Sal [The Map of Salt], Fantasía Roja [Red Fantasy], El Comunista Manifiesto [The Comunist Manifesto], Teoría de la Retaguardia [Theory of the Rear Guard] and Cubantropía [Cubantrophy]. Among his exhibitions, La Isla Posible, Parque Humano, Postcapital, Atopía, Iconocracia, Nunca Real/Siempre verdadero y La Utopía Paralela [The Possible Island, Human Park, Postcapital, Atopia, Iconocracy, Never Real / Always True and The Parallel Utopia].


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