Thursday, March 9th, a French court ruled against artist Jeff Koons in a case filed by the estate of photographer Jean-François Bauret, according to the Art Market Monitor. Bauret’s estate claimed that Koons’ work, Naked (1998) was based on the photographer’s 1970 photo, Enfants. Koons and the Pompidou Center where it was displayed, were ordered to pay about $21,200 in compensation to the estate of the late photographer as well as an additional $4,230 for displaying it on their website. And that’s where everything reasonable stops.
First of all, it’s kind of a creepy image. As is true with much of Koons’ work, there is a carnival/scary clown/perverted Hummel feel to it. But rather than balloon puppies or Michael Jackson embracing primates, in this work, he just goes straight to naked children. Koons’ context never seems completely wholesome despite a weird mix of cliche and optimism. So, it seems strange that, despite Koons’ seemingly endless imagination for the weird, he had to reach back in time to Jean-François Bauret to find creepy subject matter to riff on.
But then there’s the fact that Koons seems to get sued on a pretty regular basis. A cursory check of the Google machine brings up three or four copyright suits against him. And he generally loses. It seems like one of the best ways to make a living as an artist is to hope Jeff Koons infringes on your copyright. One begins to wonder if this kind of thing is maybe not intentional, but for Koons to be unaware of how this relates to publicity seems unlikely. It does seem certain that Koons is a big fan of causing a ruckus. His work always pushes at some boundary, if not just straight up taunting the viewer. So this all fits right in.
But perhaps most importantly is the question of plagiarism versus borrowing. Where is that line? Should every blues song be considered a copyright infringement? Should Michelle sue Melania? Should the estate of Mussolini contact the current presidential administration? Seriously though, we know there is a line, but where is it exactly? Potato Mike always gets a little jumpy when lawyers have to make moral or ethical decisions. We’d much rather leave that to the artists. So how can we know the difference between paying tribute and stealing? I guess the best way is to look deeply into ourselves. As the NEA gets defunded and the government looks to be playing a different role in the near future, these questions are better answered by those who are directly affected. And that might just be what saves us.