Meiselas, 1981. Molotov Man
“Appropriation in art and art history refers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their art with little transformation of the original” (Tate.org, ca. 2017).
Nicaragua, 16 July 1979 and photographer Susan Meiselas captures an image that will become an icon representing a pivotal point in the country’s political history.
A petrol bomb is about to be thrown at a Somoza national guard garrison shortly before the Sandinistas take control, holding it for the next ten years.
Fast forward to spring 2003 when artist Joy Garnett begins a project – a series of paintings based solely on images taken by other photographers. Her use of Meiselas’ image prompted a letter from lawyer’s representing the author, asserting her right of ownership, citing copyright infringement and requesting that she seek written permission prior to using any further images.
Garnett’s response? To seek opinion from fellow members of an artist’s forum to which she belonged, thereby triggering a reactionary avalanche of appropriation of the ‘Molotov Man’.
‘Joywar’ seems to assume a certain arrogance on the part of the participants – a “this is our image and we can do what we want with it” antagonistic type of response.
Fundamentally, Garnett failed to acknowledge both authorship and context relating to Meiselas’ image. The consternation felt by Meiselas could have been avoided by Garnett simply crediting and referencing the work.
Garnett appears to have failed to consider the consequences of appropriating images – this is suggested by her response to a letter from Meiselas’ lawyer, a response which saw her turn to members of a forum to which she belonged to for advice and opinion. Giving thought to the potential consequences of appropriation prior to use would have enabled Garnett to do two things: firstly, to understand the need for the best practice of giving credit for the work of others, and secondly, to be able to justify her reasons for the appropriation.
The fact that Garnett had to solicit opinions regarding her appropriation and the author’s response to that appropriation, for me, brings in to question the legitimacy of her appropriation.
Meiselas’ response asserts her inalienable right to be identified as the author of the image. However, once an image is placed in the public domain it immediately becomes a legitimate object for comment and criticism. That is not, though, a licence for uncredited use of the image.
Meiselas’ consternation at the uncredited appropriation of her image which, because it was also unreferenced by Garnett was also stripped of its context, is understandable.
Nevertheless, it is interesting to question why, when her image had been used many times out of context, it was Garnett’s decontextualized use of the image which attracted Meiselas’ attention in such a negative way.
Issues relating to the potential appropriation of my work are difficult to predict. I would expect that any use of my images be credited and acknowledge me as the author. Where appropriate, I would also expect the source to be referenced.
If my images were used without credit, the response would be to request that, as far as possible, credit be attached retrospectively to any work already created in addition to credit be given in any future works. In terms of litigation, I think this would depend very much on whether my work had been appropriated for financial gain by the artist.
Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. [Online]. Available at: http://fdm.ucsc.edu/~landrews/film171aw09/readings_files/OnTheRightsOfTheMolotovMan.pdf (Accessed 10 June 2007).
Tate.Org ca. 2017. Art Terms entry: ‘appropriation’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/appropriation (Accessed: Saturday 10 June 2017)