The day before my friend Tayler Smith and I found out our photo series was appropriated into the New Yorker, I woke up to a text message from another friend. We’re psychic sisters; she has a nightmare one night, I have one the morning after. Her message was a two-liner: “I see your imprint everywhere. You are owed. I love you.” Twelve hours later, I sent one back, a question first posed by Leslie Jamison: “What’s the difference between empathy and theft?” It started raining, it kept raining. I felt a headache start to bubble behind my right eyelid. I fell asleep reading the New Yorker.
Six hours later, we saw a screenshot of our work, mine and Tayler’s, altered only slightly and miscredited to someone else. In the New Yorker.
Cosmically--the piece was written by my favorite author, Hilton Als! About the “freedom of young photographers”? Ironically, the appropriated work isn’t even a photo. It’s a composite banner. But still, the line was there in the credits: “Photograph by Zak Arctander.”
Even explaining what happens feels ridiculous. It’s perfectly terrible. I still have that headache.
I spent the next hour sweating out my rage on the fire escape of my apartment. I spent the next hour emailing my friends. “Is this real? Am I insane?” I spent the next hour trying to find some kind of connection to this stranger and myself. Did Zak Arctander, the appropriator of our photograph for his work “Cheeks,” know Hari, our friend and sitter for this portrait? Was there some kind of explanation or excuse?
Tayler came over. We emailed Zak to see if he would explain. We waited to hear back from the gallery. We emailed Hilton Als for help. We baked a rage cake.
The original photograph.
At the time of this writing, I haven’t heard a word from Arctander, or the curator, or the photo editor. The gallery responded only to one reporter, with one paragraph. The only person who has responded to my emails has been Hilton Als, who apologized (maintaining my fandom effortlessly), and asked how he could help.
He can’t, really. Because Arctander splattered paint over our image, it’s “good enough” to not be theft. It’s protected by law, and it is defended by the gallery as sampling. We’re going to be written out of the authorship in Arctander’s Yale MFA gallery exhibition and accompanying New Yorker piece—like many women before us.
At right, Zak Arctander’s “Cheeks.”
Therein lies the problem. The art world is screwed: systematically, historically. He’s one in the long line of male artists who’ve done this to women. A lot of think pieces have written about this very problem—but not one from a woman whose art was stolen. Well, hello.
Stepping outside my rage headache, I am at least comforted by the fact this wasn’t a ploy by Richard Prince, to whom Arctander owes his context as an appropriator. But on the edges, our story includes Prince’s work too—he’s appropriated the photos of other people in our series (see his latest instagram of Miley Cyrus and Tyler Ford) and that of our friends (the photographer Petra Collins) as well.
Prince’s career has consistently involved recontextualizing imagery since 1975. Little has changed since except for the medium. His early works used images from large corporations—he was the underdog artist, positioning himself against the almighty and powerful. Now Prince lies upon his legacy and has pushed out into the territory of social media, now taking images from fellow artists and internet personalities. Arctander’s pretty basic venture in appropriation walks in his footsteps—and more will come in his wake.
I know it’s art. It’s just bad art, it’s lazy art, it’s art with a backbone of misogyny and it replicates the very ideology that the original photo pushed against.
The realm of appropriation isn’t exclusive to men, of course: there are actually plenty of women artists that use appropriation and use it well. Penelope Umbrico uses appropriation to make a statement on absence and erasure; Sherrie Levine appropriated photos as a form of feminist hijacking. Both of these women took from a canon that commodifies people less powerful than them and made an ethical statement on gaze and power. What Prince and Arctander has done represents and perpetuates the opposite.
It’s not a coincidence that Prince and Arctander both chose women as their source material—and most recently, trans women specifically, as well as non-binary people of color. It’s methodical, and not without historical precedent. More established white artists have always happened to be interested in experiences that aren’t theirs. If art is about perspective, it’s also always about power: the production of it, the reclamation of it, and the violent reversal of that rebellion, too. So I can’t even say that what happened to our original photo is simply theft, and not art—I know it’s art. It’s just bad art, it’s lazy art, it’s art with a backbone of misogyny and it replicates the very ideology that the original photo pushed against. It reminds us that our stories are easily stolen—we’re only as visible as you let us be, within the confines of your control. We’re only rewarded when it’s through your lens—when you control the narrative.
Prince and his friends who use transformation as signature and methodology—they get lauded for pointing out loopholes in art law. In 2013, Prince won the copyright case Cariou v. Prince, in which the French photographer Patrick Cariou accused Prince of infringement for appropriating Cariou’s images in a series of paintings. As an NYU art law professor Amy Adler told Art in America at the time, that ruling defined that:
“artwork does not need to comment on previous work to qualify as fair use, and that Prince’s testimony is not the dispositive question in determining whether a work is transformative. Rather the issue is how the work may reasonably be perceived. This is the right standard because it takes into account the underlying public purpose of copyright law, which should not be beholden to statements of individual intent but instead consider the value that all of us gain from the creation of new work.”
As if the cleverness of the theft excuses the theft itself. These loopholes benefit the thief, have you noticed? They rely on this power, and they’ve habitually used it only to profit on the backs of people less powerful, with much more to say. It’s a reflection of art history at large, upheld by art law itself. You know what? Art law is misogyny. It defends the abilities of those already in power. Of course it doesn’t defend me and other women who’ve had our work appropriated. Of course Richard Prince and his children of the corn will get away with this. It’s written on the walls. How many women artists have been erased from museums through pre-Instagram modes of re-appropriation: their works attributed to male colleagues in their studios, their mentors or their lovers or more visible friends. How many women only get into museums by being muses, and never the artist themselves?
When people tell Tayler and I that what Zak Arctander did was legal, and therefore permissible—and wouldn’t you know it, it’s only the men we’ve spoken to that feel compelled to point this out—I want to point them to the history of law itself. Laws aren’t ethics, they are informed by them. And they often take a long, long time to catch up.
I wonder how many other women, how many other queer artists, how many other trans kids will be collected, silenced, and appropriated from while we wait for the law and those who create it and uphold it to finally listen to us. Making art together is often our only source of comfort and self-care in this world. It is frequently the only way we have to shape our own narratives into something hopeful. How dare you take that from us. But also, how predictable.
I know this will happen again; all good ideas are stolen, after all. Maggie Nelson wrote about art and cruelty in so many words: “Misogyny, when expressed or explored by men, remains a timeless classic.” So it goes. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, it’s merely the most perfect example of the system at large, so efficiently executed as to almost be a joke.
I’m not laughing at all.
Arabelle Sicardi is a beauty writer and artist who has had enough of this garbage. They were previously seen at BuzzFeed and probably everywhere else.
Tayler Smith is an NYC #based photographer who’s only going to talk to you to get to know your dog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nottaylersmith.
Top image: Tayler Smith & Arabelle Sicardi, “Fuck Art,” 2015. Price upon request. Middle image, Tayler Smith and Arabelle Sicardi. “Cheeks” via Zak Arctander/Danziger Gallery.