Appropriating Helen

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In 2015, the American artist/photographer Richard Prince stirred up a hornets’ nest when he exhibited a collection of photos from strangers’ Instagram feeds. He enlarged the images, complete with comments, put them in a show, and sold several of them for $100,000 each.

Critics and peers instantly took to Twitter and blogosphere to either denounce Prince as a thief or to sing his praises as an artistic visionary. Interestingly, one of the unwitting subjects of the controversy, a woman whose Instagram photo Prince had appropriated did not raise a fuss and seemed pleased to bask in a bit of reflected glory.

Neither was this Prince’s first brush with the art police. And nor was he the only famous artist to lift, steal or borrow other people’s work for their own masterpieces.

Appropriation in art has a long, well-established history. Its practitioners include some of the greatest names in 20th century art, such as Picasso, Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. Many artists and critics believe that in this digital age, with easy access to images, bit torrents and ubiquitous invitations to download, there is no object or image that is not available for the picking.

Of course, those whose works find their way into the art of others, without permission, are less charitable. Lawsuits are lodged and courts often decide in their favour. But the practice persists and probably will as long as humans exist.

A critical factor that judges refer to in deciding whether an artist is a genius or a thief is the concept of “fair use”. Has the photographer or artist transformed the original sufficiently to create a new and fresh work of art? Or has he lazily decided to ride on the coattails of someone else?

Question of appropriation

Growing up in India, I was a fan of Hindi movies, and though I did not understand exactly who she was at the time, Helen, the “Queen of the Nautch Girls”, was a big part of the attraction.

In more recent times, I have found Helen to be an enormously inspiring subject.

As she has danced and vamped and swayed across the internet on YouTube, I have tried to capture her in full flight as if she were a flitting butterfly.

And, in the process, my mind has turned to the question of appropriation and fair use. Am I creating something new and fresh? Or am I merely an obsessed fan stealing glimpses of my idol, like a silent Peeping Tom? [My full article with photos here]

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