In the crushingly ugly and unpleasant construction-site-cum-human-being-storage-silo that is the city of Toronto, the rare sight of a piece of public art really stands out. That is why I have always loved a large, colourful sculpture of a thimble and some buttons on the sidewalk at the corner of Richmond and Spadina. The sculpture was made, at public expense, by artist Stephen Cruise in 1997. It symbolizes the previous identity of this neighbourhood as the garment district, where textile and clothing factories flourished. The piece is now at the centre of a small local controversy that actually echoes intellectual conflicts in the art world at large and represents sweeping changes in the way we have come to think of creation and authorship.
The sculpture in question consists of two elements: the giant pile of buttons (topped by the thimble) and, around it, embedded in the sidewalk, a 25-metre representation of a tape measure. A few years ago a graffiti artist by the name of Victor Fraser decided the tape measure wasn't visible enough and added some colour to it. He didn't destroy it, just enhanced it. But he didn't have the permission of the piece's creator. The colour was recently washed off by city workers, at the request of Cruise.
When local media reported on the cleanup, a strange backlash occurred: Many of the comments on the online reporting were angry not at the defacer of the art but at the original artist. Scorn began piling on him. What kind of snob would demand the removal of such a popular and colourful intervention? Isn't he open to collaboration? Is he against the participation of the community? The idea of preserving an artist's intention was likened to censorship; Cruise was called an egotist.
Sound familiar? A similar Toronto spat had been in the headlines a few decades earlier, with markedly different public response. Remember the lawsuit over the Eaton Centre geese? This occurred in 1981, when the giant mall decided to Christmas-decorate the sculpted geese hanging over the atrium. These geese had been made by the famous artist Michael Snow. He demanded the red ribbons be taken off them. The case went to court and the artist won. The case is often seen as an important precedent for artists' control of their works that are in public. The bottom line, legally, is that you can't go changing them, even if you commissioned them or own the space they're installed in. I remember that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the artist on that one: We believed in individual artists then.
But these are different times. We don't see artists as sole, heroic, mysterious creators any more. We are used to appropriation of all kinds, from sampling to mashups to critical homages. We are used to referencing and remixing. We are in constant debate over the possibility of originality.
And we are used to the idea of art as vandalism, too: We know that Banksy graffiti is worth millions. We question who Banksy's vandalism art actually belongs to: Can he claim control over how it is altered or painted over, when he put it up without permission? Does the community where it was painted own it? Or does anyone?
These questions are not unique to public installation art; they trouble the world of highbrow gallery art as well. A recent tiny tempest involving conceptual artist Richard Prince illustrates just how complicated these issues now get. Prince is a notorious stealer of other people's images: That's what his art is about. Since the 1970s he has been photographing other people's photographs and putting his own name on them; he is most famous for his Cowboys series, involving the Marlboro Man from advertisements. He has been sued for this appropriation before, and lost.
Prince's most recent art project is about repurposing other people's photographs from Instagram. His twist on it is an amusing one: He finds sexy selfie photos on the Instagram accounts of famous, semi-famous or merely cute people, mostly women. Then he comments on them flirtatiously as if he knows the subjects. Then he blows up the whole screen – photo plus comments – and prints it as a huge poster. He had a gallery show of these in New York recently – the series is called New Portraits – and a corresponding Instagram page of his own.
Amusingly, quite a few gallery-goers decided to reappropriated the selfies by standing in front of them and taking copy-cat exhibitionist photos of themselves. It was all deliriously hall-of-mirrors postmodern.
One subject was not so amused, though. The young feminist artist Audrey Wollen had one of her own erotic self-portraits used by Prince in this way. The photo was – get this – an art piece about reappropriation that she had posted on Instagram. It is also a naked selfie, a recreation of Diego Velazquez's The Rokeby Venus. Prince did not use this image as part of his gallery show, but he did include it on his Instagram page (since taken down). Wollen was furious about the older, male artist using a piece of feminist art in this way. She is not at all pleased by the irony of her Instagram reappropriation being used as part of an Instagram reappropriation project.
Obviously, creative ownership of art works is not a concept we have clearly defined, either in intellectual or in populist spaces, either in the white cube galleries of New York or the bureaucratic committees of Toronto. We thought we had, but our old definitions are disintegrating with every cellphone photo and every screen grab.