As one of the millions of his fans around the world who wept upon learning of his death on April 21, I’m still struggling to come to grips with Prince’s passing. The outpouring of condolences and appreciative gestures has been striking, including those from government officials. Minnesota Senators taking time on the senate floor to read a resolution honoring the artist, and pausing their busy schedules for a moment of silence indicate genuine respect and adoration for the departed.
But the so-called “PRINCE Act” should not be counted among such respectful responses. It’s more of a perverse and ironic appropriation of his persona. The bill is purportedly designed to protect Prince’s heirs and his estate by preventing unauthorized posthumous use of his image, name and other aspects of his public persona to make money. But if passed this bill would likely have the opposite effect. In fact, there are several signs that the PRINCE Act has hardly anything at all to do with protecting any artists.
The first indicator of this bill being designed without concern for Prince is apparent in its very name. A superficially clever acronym for “Personal Rights In Names Can Endure,” the title actually does exactly what the law it names is supposed to prevent: commercially exploit an individual’s name without that individual’s consent. According to the Minnesota legislators that introduced and sponsored the bill, Republican Representative Joe Hoppe and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Senator Bobby Joe Champion, it’s prompted by Prince’s death and would protect his persona. Considering the history of these key players, it is clear that the likelier beneficiaries of the PRINCE Act would be professional sports teams in Minnesota. These organizations tend to control the publicity rights of their athletes, and those rights would become much more valuable if the bill passes.
It may be no fortuitous coincidence that both Representative Hoppe and Congressman Champion were 2015-2016 members of the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Sports Facilities, a rather moribund body according to media accounts. This Commission is charged with protecting Minnesota taxpayers during the building of the new Vikings football stadium. More importantly, Mr. Hoppe and Mr. Champion’s committee service suggests that managing the financially critical relationship between the state and the professional sports franchises it hosts are infinitely more important than Prince’s estate, or that of any other Minnesota artists.
The law firm representing the special administrator overseeing Prince’s estate also has a strong connection to the professional sports industry. Take a look at Stinson Leonard Street’s own description of the scope of service of its “Sports and Entertainment Business” practice on the firm’s website. It lists major league sports teams, college coaches, NCAA member institutions, sports commissions and other sports related entities, but it does not mention anything concerning visual arts, performing arts, theater, film, photography or any other artistic domain one would expect a law practice genuinely concerned with arts and artists to cover. Despite all the media headlines that claim the bill would protect Prince’s legacy or “artists’ rights,” it seems likelier that the interests of Big Sports will benefit.
But, for true Prince fans, the worst thing about the PRINCE Act is that it may have already done irreversible damage to Prince’s legacy.
Because right of publicity laws are state-based, they’re also subject to being limited by the U.S. Constitution. First Amendment protections for free speech are strongest when the relevant speech concerns political figures or matters of public concern. By appropriating Prince as the effective mascot for their effort to get the PRINCE Act passed, the legislators have effectively turned Prince into a political figure, at least for constitutional law purposes. Prince is now intimately associated with publicly debated matters of policy and law. As a result, his name and his image are now fair game for political speech concerning those matters. And, unfortunately, such speech can take the form of t-shirts, mugs, bobble-heads dolls, ink pins, baseball caps, life-size standing poster figures and most other forms that have been used to express political views.
In effect, supporters of this bill have very likely irreparably harmed Prince’s persona by opening the gate to unauthorized uses of his name, image and voice. PRINCE Act backers are rushing to pass this bill, and for good reason. They know that if Prince fans see these signs, they’ll stop it.
My They Live essay is now live on Medium. Bear three things in mind as you read it:
1. the first inspiration for it is a Gertrude Stein axiom: “The paragraph is the emotional unit of the English language”;
2. the second inspiration for it is the drabble form (the essay is composed of strict 100-word drabbles); and
3. the third inspiration for it is Zizek’s reading of They Live (to which Frank Armitage Was Here responds)
Stay tuned for a short essay on John Carpenter’s masterpiece. For now, here’s a Zizek snippet to which my piece will be responding.
So excited to be visiting my friends and colleagues at Southern University’s Law Center soon. On Wednesday, November 4, I’ll deliver a lecture there on the interaction of technological flux in social media and simulation technologies on the one hand, and publicity rights of athletes from marginalized communities on the other. This talk builds on some of the concepts I’ve tried to work through at the intersection of celebrity political figures (especially President Obama), IP and science fiction (i.e., the concept of artificial immanence).
Hope to see you in Baton Rouge.
I’m looking forward to giving two talks in Detroit on Halloween. The first takes place at 10a at the legendary community letter press Signal Return, and will cover ways to fund art practices through collaboration on National Science Foundation grants. The second performance will happen at MOCAD‘s Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead at 1p. There I’ll describe the In’s and Out’s of Detroit’s amazing and under-used 0% Interest Home Repair Loan Program.
Please join me for one or both if you’re in town. Feel free to contact me directly, too, if you have questions about either event’s subject.
(A reposting of a HuffPo article that may be timely again)
One of the most striking works held in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ formidable collection is Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalene (c. 1598). A grand example of the artist’s chiaroscuro style of intensely contrasted regions of darkness and light, the painting depicts a virtuous Martha’s strenuous efforts to convince Mary to turn away from her libertine lifestyle and to embrace piety. The painting’s classic religious conversion story roughly parallels the trajectory of the painter’s art historical assessment. Brilliant but badly troubled, Caravaggio garnered fame in Rome, quickly and flamboyantly, died violently at age 38, and, despite having produced numerous commissioned works for rich patrons throughout Italy, disappeared from the radars of art historians and critics for three centuries and change. Not until the early 20th century would he be reborn through rediscovery.
Juxtaposing Caravaggio’s reputational rebirth and Mary’s spiritual rebirth makes for an intensified viewing. The one resonates with the other, amplifying the painting’s punch. Alongside this aesthetic value, Martha and Mary Magdalenecan also yield a strategic value to the city it calls home. Detroit, like Mary, has an opportunity to undergo a dramatic, and quite literal, renaissance.
As Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings continue to unfold, once again some creditors and commentators are arguing that the city should sell off the DIA’s art collection to pay off the city’s creditors, among whom are thousands of retired city workers. The pro-liquidators would have the pensioners vote against a federally mediatedGrand Bargain that is designed to cushion the blow to their benefits plans and prevent a sell-off of DIA art. Symbolically and politically, the fate of the Caravaggio and all the other works held under the DIA’s stewardship, hinge on the outcome of a stark choice confronting the city. Shall the city become a post-bankruptcy exemplar of municipal resilience and transformation, or a poster-child for new experimental forms of what some refer to as disaster capitalism? This is the fundamental question the pensioners’ vote will answer. Ultimately, if Detroit’s aim is rebirth, the city will have to vigorously rebut the shortsighted reasoning of some of its creditors, and instead implement a long-term urban design strategy that foregrounds the city’s art, and, in particular, the DIA.
Choosing to become an art center is often considered largely a matter of gathering a critical mass of artists and institutions that train, nurture, employ and showcase them. But it is equally accurate, and arguably more important, to see the decision as a commitment to investing in two types of problems.
The first problem type concerns all the controversial and at times scandalous matters of art forgery and authentication, piracy, repatriation battles, and perennially present appetency –the early modern Caravaggio and his wealthy Roman patrons knew it then, just as the present-day Gagosians and Poly Auctionsdo now– of art to serve as an emblem of the ultra-rich, an adornment like a Sneetch’s belly star, and nothing more. But these are, ironically, good problems for cities to have. They entangle a gaggle of debated viewpoints that hem together strains of ethics, law, cultural criticism, the humanities, and, crucial in the context of bankruptcy, assessments of one of capitalism’s most stupefying exercises in excess–the apparently upper-limitless valuations attached to high art objects.
These are the problems of Paris, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Toronto, New York. These are the problems of vital, culturally wealthy cities. Infusing the discussions within and about Detroit with them will not rid the city of its more tangible woes. But it is inevitable that the infusion would place the city in good discursive company. An additional salutary by-product? A bold choice on Detroit’s part would likely inspire other cities to not go quietly into an artless night. The DIA has come to occupy so central a role in the bankruptcy proceeding that its fate has political consequences not only locally and regionally, but as well globally. Other financially distressed cities are looking on, particularly in Europe.
Keeping the DIA’s collection and choosing to aim for global relevance also means embracing a fundamental problem of our fractured, frenetic age: rampant meaninglessness facing so many in a world whose degrees of risk, opacity, hardness, and sheer velocity outstrip most scales. Ambitious museums and radical architectural forms can serve as secular Meccas for those who live in their vicinity, certainly; but, as importantly, institutions like the DIA also function as planetary way-stations for pilgrims worm-holing through international airports from city to city, many looking to understand their planet-roaming as something more meaningful than even their most transactionally meticulous spreadsheet would indicate.
Can a solitary DIA pull off this existential task? Within the context of the other material links working like so much connective tissue to anchor Detroit in the flows of people, money, goods and ideas streaming between the world’s cultural hubs — its International Airport, its culture industry, the research universities, the daily examples of resiliency that its residents perform — we should believe so.
Critics have argued that since Caravaggio likely used courtesans as models forMartha and Mary Magdalene that the conversion story is undermined. But against the backdrop of the momentous decision Detroiters are mulling, a better interpretation might read Caravaggio’s choice as indicative of the crucial roles that real people –the workers, mothers, teachers, retirees, the destitute, the children, and even the criminals of Detroit– play in this metropolitan drama, and the power of great art to illuminate the direct connections between real peoples’ lives and questions of massive personal, political and societal consequence. Everyone in the city is confronted with the choice of Detroit’s possible futures. And each one will bear its consequences.
Detroit’s best option, as with Mary Magdalene, is conversion: civic rebirth.Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”) is the city’s motto, after all. It should also be the key to Detroit’s vision of the future.