“A lawsuit around Andy Warhol could have harsh consequences for museums and the future of art”


UCould the lawsuit surrounding the artist Andy Warhol weaken the future of Western art? Damn. THE New York Times just asked the question in several articles. Other newspapers too. That legal journals, academics or museums go in the same direction reflects a certain feverishness. The case is in the hands of the US Supreme Court, whose decision is expected in the coming days.

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This story goes back to 1984, when the peroxide-haired pop art pope created for the magazine Vanity Fair a portrait of Prince, singer with planetary success with the album Purple Rain. The artist, who has accompanied consumer society and popular culture, creates his painting from a black and white image by photographer Lynn Goldsmith, a rock specialist. For this loan, she is remunerated 400 dollars. As he had done with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Warhol enlarges, reframes, paints, silkscreens a Prince with purple skin on an orange background.

The problem is that Warhol made not one but sixteen portraits of Prince in varying colors. The photographer only learned of it when the singer died in 2016, with the publication of “another” Prince, this time all orange, in Vanity Fair. The Warhol Foundation, which manages the posterity of the artist, receives 10,250 dollars from the magazine; Lynn Goldsmith, nothing.

The latter believes that she should be paid each time one of the sixteen Princes is published in a newspaper or a book. The dispute has been in court for seven years, raising a thorny issue around the intensity of the borrowing. The foundation must convince the judges that Warhol’s interventions are “substantial” in order to benefit from fair use (“fair use”) and pay no fees to the photographer.

Borrowing as a creative spring

At first instance, the court ruled in favor of the foundation, finding that Warhol had transformed Prince into “icon”. But the Court of Appeal considered on the contrary that it did not have to “playing art critics”, concluding that Warhol had not really altered the photo. Here we are before the Supreme Court, where the nine judges, in October 2022, exchanged their arguments, moving from law to art, digressing on Steven Spielberg or Jimi Hendrix. And even on their own tastes.

The exercise was funny, taught us the New York Timeson October 12, 2022. For example, when the liberal Elena Kagan asked the very conservative Clarence Thomas why he was “Prince fan in the 1980s and not anymore”. The latter got away with a pirouette in an atmosphere of fun. Without knowing who will win soon.

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