Nobody has said it better than the art historian Rainer Crone, who worked closely with Warhol from 1968 onward, and recently wrote that Warhol’s unique contribution to contemporary art was “the rejection of authorship as an essential feature of authenticity and originality.” I guess that means that the death of originality is a new form of originality.
Such circular reasoning explains why Jeff Koons, the creator of sculptures based on the image of a balloon dog, recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to a company selling bookends that represent a balloon dog and to the manufacturer of said dogs. It is doubtful Koons could win this one in court. We have all watched at a street fair as somebody twists long balloons into dogs or other animals. So what can Koons say is really his? The man has made his reputation as an appropriator—as an artist who borrows images and styles and ideas more or less wholesale from other more or less creative spirits. He himself has been sued for copyright violation four times, which may help to explain his eagerness to establish some legal precedent for appropriation as a form of creation. It is easy to make fun of Koons. But to the collectors, dealers, curators, critics, and historians who have invested time and in many cases considerable sums of money in his work and that of Warhol and other appropriators, the originality of the death of originality cannot be taken lightly. I think there is some concern that the artists will not finally escape what Sir Joshua Reynolds, in speaking about artists’ appropriations from other artists to the students at the Royal Academy in 1774, referred to as “the servility of plagiarism.”