I want to preface this response by saying I am not particularly well-versed in IP and copyright law, but I will do my best to analyze the situation presented in the Harper piece.
“On the Rights of Molotov Man” is supposedly co-authored by Joy Garnett and Susan Meisales. Unfortunately, this joint op-ed is not a conversation between the reappropriator and the appropriated. Rather, the two viewpoints rest one after the other for the reader to inspect and decide for himself who is in the right. While this style of article works for the topic at hand, I believe a dialogue between the two artists would have yielded some greater insights on the issue.
That being said, this piece is undoubedtly interesting to me, and while published over 7 years ago, brings up the increasingly relevant issues of reappropriation, piracy, and copyright. Truthfully, I can see the points being raised by both artists, and also have issues with each of their stances.
For example, in Garnett’s artistic process, she describes a step in which she, “save[s] the most promising images in folders on my computer desktop, and I let them sit for a while so I could forget where I found them.” Which makes sense from a creative standpoint, but at the same time reveals her disregard for crediting the original source. Perhaps she believed that her work was a sufficient “remix” of the original work, but as a member of Rhizome, a community that, according to the article, often has public discussions on, “the philosophies of appropriation, sampling, remixing,and current copyright controversies,” she must have known that her work was walking in a gray area of legality.
On the other hand, Meisales’ argument also contains some holes. While I do not know the specifics on time-sensitivity as it relates to the copyright law and reappropriation, I do know that there was nearly a 25+ year gap between the time the photo was taken and the exhibition of the Riot series. From my perspective it seems that Meisales may have been partly motivated beyond the artistic integrity of her photograph, as she is very well accustomed to the reappropriation of the photograph as seen by the photo archive at the end of the article. In this case, she was seeking a financial compensation, which undermines her intent in my opinion, as it does not mention whether Garnett has made any financial gain of her own from the artwork.
An additional point… At the end of the piece Meisales is quoted, “I still feel strongly, as I watch Pablo Arauz’s context being stripped away-as I watch him being converted into the emblem of an abstract riot-that it would be a betrayal of him if I did not at least protest the diminishment of his act of defiance.” I would have to say that I really disagree with this comment. I believe Meisales is misunderstanding the purpose of Garnett’s work. In my opinion, rather than diminshing the act of defiance by stripping the original context from the work, the reappropriation is blowing up the context, allow Arauz to stand for much more than the Nicaraguan riot. The Riot Series and the Molotov Man specifically stand for the raw human emotions that are magnified through the paintings. Without its specific context, Molotov Man stands for all acts of defiance from the beginning of time, a much more powerful message in my opinion. And for that, I believe Meisales, as an artist, should be thankful.
Keeping in mind my gripes, I do still very much value the importance of copyright law as well as the allowance for reappropriation and remixing. If I could choose for myself, I would side with Garnett as I believe keeping in mind the time gap as well as how the content was recreated, it provides for sufficient alterations and circustance to not be considered, “sailing under the flag of piracy” as Meisales’ lawyer viciously put Garnett’s painting.