The art world presents an overwhelming threat to clowns everywhere as Jeff Koons sues San Francisco store Park Life and Toronto creators imm Living for producing and selling balloon dog bookends that look only slightly similar to the famous artist’s balloon dog sculptures in that they both look like puffy dogs. A cease and desist letter from Koons commanded that the bookends no longer be sold and the objects are now removed from Park Life’s shelves. If Koons should succeed in his suit to have utter dominion over all the balloon dogs he surveys, we all know who would be hurt the most: clowns, America’s greatest balloon dog producers.
Clowns of America International, our country’s august organization of “ambassadors of joy,” was unable to be reached for comment this morning, but we’re sure that COAI’s board members must be shaking in their oversized red shoes at the prospect of Koons’ legal actions. What would clowns be without balloon animals!? Clearly just a shell of their former joyful selves. Will the maniacal Koons target mustaches and lobsters next!?
We didn’t really have a chance to find out what Koons is plotting since contacting Gagosian gallery (who represent the artist) for comment is like dropping message-filled bottles into a big black hole of “not at their desk.” I can only imagine that the gallery would have few comments to offer, save that they’ll keep selling Koons anyway and don’t really care that targeting the little guy making bookends clearly aesthetically different from Koons’ non-bookends is not only stupid, it’s illogical. Koons no more owns the copyright on balloon dogs than Botero owns the rights to fat people.
However, this silliness hasn’t stopped appropriation artists from waking up one day thinking that their own work is now original and un-appropriate-able. Richard Prince famously refused Slate permission to reprint his iconic work “Untitled (Cowboy)” (2003), hugely ironic considering that the original piece is simply a re-photographing of a Marlboro advertising photograph by Sam Abell. Greg Allen short-circuited the conflict by appropriating his own image of “Untitled (Cowboy)” and republishing it as “300 x 404”, which later became a 20×200 print. Prince has also been the target of an appropriation suit from photographer Patrick Cariou, charging that the artist’s use of the Cariou’s photos of Rastafarian did not constitute an original enough object.
Shepard Fairey has also been at the center of more than a few appropriation battles, chief among them the accusation by Mannie Garcia that Fairey’s Obama portrait failed to appropriately credit (or license) Garcia’s AP photograph that forms the basis for Fairey’s portrait. Damien Hirst, an even famous-er artist, once threatened to sue a teenager who used images of Hirst’s diamond skull in art work that he had sold. The young artist actually had to surrender the works he made and pay Hirst a fine. In a reverse, Hirst has been accused of copying the idea for his diamond skull from John LeKay, who claims to have been making such works in the early nineties. Quite a mess.
What these stories should teach us is that all art is appropriation art. Every artist is working in dialogue with the visual culture of their times, and we shouldn’t declaim artists for freely grabbing from the world’s visual detritus. That’s what artists do. It’s terrible that better-known or sexier artists can steal ideas from those without voice, and it’s illegal for commercial organizations to steal artists’ work for their own profit-directed ends, but there are uses of appropriation that are totally respectful and artistically interesting. What we have to do is to be aware of how appropriation works and judge the fair cases from the unfair. In this case, Jeff Koons is totally in the wrong, and forgetting his roots as an artist. It’s not like Spalding is suing him for appropriating their basketballs. Or was that just sponsorship?
At present, Park Life has pulled the bookends from their shelves but seems to plan to get them back in stock ASAP. Koons has demanded that imm Living dispose of all their stock of bookends and ship them to the artist. Fuck that. Koons doesn’t own the copyright to balloon dogs, and the balloon dog bookends are different enough from Koons’ piece that fair use doesn’t even apply. It’s a different object and Koons has no right to be such an asshole about it.