“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…” Who wrote that? A Google search tells us that it was Oscar Wilde. But can we be sure? Isn’t all creative expression – music, art, poetry, literature – borrowed or copied from someone else?
That, strangely, is a fundamental cultural question that the Supreme Court tried to answer yesterday. THE SUPREME COURT?
That is not the place to which one normally would turn for art criticism – or, indeed, for any genuinely felicitous expression. One might say, and say fairly, that most court opinions pull the reader – gasping for clarity — down into the turgid depths of legal reasoning and logical syllogism.
But not yesterday: the Court was dealing with whether the daring and imaginative modern artist, Andy Warhol, had illegally copied a quite creative photograph of the pop star known as Prince.
For 81 pages, in the majority and dissenting opinions, the reader is treated to delightful flashes of color and artistic imagery, along with the one art form that Supreme Court Justices are really good at – dueling footnotes depicting each other’s supposedly glaring errors of omission and commission, attempting to elicit from the reader at least a giggle if not a guffaw.
Those 81 pages, of course, were an exercise in serious legal business: they were interpretations of how far the U.S. law of copyright protects artists who borrow from others’ work when the copying comes within the tolerable limits of something called “fair use.”
It would not do justice (so to speak) to the ruling’s entertainment value to describe its legal outcome except to say, in summary, that the estate of Mr. Warhol, the keeper of his artistic legacy and its surrounding rights, lost and probably will have to pay off the photographer whose portrait of Prince was purloined.
Just as one would react to a friend’s description of a fantastic museum exhibit by wanting eagerly to go see it for one’s self, the best way is to let yesterday’s decision speak for itself. (Spoiler alert: the best part, image-wise, is Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, but the best collection of snarky footnotes is in Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s majority opinion.)
If you don’t mind holding your breath through some legal verbiage, this link will take you to the full 81 pages and its many delectable images: