Response to “On the Rights of Molotov Man”

In the February 2007 Harper’s Magazine article, “On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context,” painter Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas debate the bounds of copyright and how decontextualizing and “remixing” images affects meaning.  

Joy Garnett painted the Molotov Man (above) based on a photograph that Susan Meiselas had taken (below) of Pablo Arauz, who was taken part in the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.  When Garnett presented the work in an exhibition, she was hit with a potential lawsuit from Meiselas’ lawyer, although Meiselas says that she did not end up suing in the end.  Garnett believes that the Molotov Man had become a culture symbol, a part of the visual vocabulary and fair game for reappropriation, while Meiselas argues that specificity and context are everything.

The blogger nmazca poses the question, “Who owns the rights to this man’s struggle?”  Nobody asked Pablo Arauz whether or not his image could be reproduced.  His struggle belongs not just to him, but to a collective anyway.  The image of Pablo Arauz as the Molotov man is now an icon and not the same thing as the reality of Arauz the Sandinista, the family man, and the truck driver.  He is the symbol of a struggle that transcends his own personhood, much like Tank Man (AKA the Unknown Rebel) in Tiananmen Square.

The claiming of Arauz’s image as a form of exclusive intellectual property just seems ridiculous to me.  By threatening to sue Garnett, Meiselas was not so much protecting the context of Arauz’s of struggle in so much as protecting her own economic interests in the form of her claim to intellectual property.  Molotov Man, in becoming an icon, belongs to everyone and no one.  Like language itself, it is part of the Commons, and it is not something that should (or can) be privatized.

I believe images and symbols should be available for artists (and everybody else) to remix and mash-up, but the fact that two relatively privileged content creators in New York are debating ownership over the image of a Nicaraguan Sandinista strikes me as a phenomenon similar to what Lethem, in last week’s reading, called “imperial plagiarism.”  I’m glad Molotov Man inspired Meiselas to snap the photo and Garnett to paint, but reading the article I can’t help but to feel a like I want to shake them both and say, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!” It’s not about your photography or your painting, but ultimately it is about Pablo Arauz – the person, not the icon – and his personal struggle.  Let it inspire you to tell stories, take pictures, and make, but don’t try to claim what has become part of the Commons.

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  • joy

    Wow — thank you so much for this thoughtful post. These many years later, I continue to find myself embroiled in difficult discussions about all this. It’s important to try to separate the real issues from the emotional personal stuff.

    best regards,

  • joy

    PS: it was actually never about Pablo Arauz.

  • Hi Joy,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I had to read the Harper’s article for a class I am taking in my masters program at NYU.

    I am sure that all of this controversy as put a toll on you personally, but I am happy to see that you are still engaging in debate about the wider implications of intellectual property and creative production.

    I think the fact that it (referring to the article and not to the artwork) was actually never about Pablo Arauz that I take issue. I’m fine with the photo and with the painting. I think they both have creative and ethical merit. I just thought that the absence of Arauz’s voice in the article was a loud silence. I guess all I am trying to say is that I’m curious to hear what he would have to say about the whole debate. Even if it isn’t really about him, he is still somehow involved.


  • joy

    hi Lee-Sean,
    I take your point; I thought that ending my segment of the article with maszca’s ironic question was a way of inserting Arauz, if briefly, into the equation. Of course, the article was drawn from twelve minute talks that Susan and I had given at an NYU conference on fair use, so there was a certain focus… As for Arauz, I guess we have to take Susan’s word for it: when she interviewed him a decade later when making her documentary film, his reaction to becoming an icon, and to the explosive ubiquity of his image, was fairly “banal”. Not what she hoped for; it didn’t make the final cut! I suppose she wanted more; maybe we want to much from him; but that is part of our own need, our own projection of heroic values onto a guy who unknowingly lent a gesture and became an iconic figure.

    Which brings me to something that we didn’t get a chance to explore in the article: historic events are only “historic” so far as they can be recalled and retold through narrative; and those narratives, whether they be constructed for art purposes or as journalism, are nevertheless constructed. The moment such an image is made, it heads in a direction that is tangential to its initial “reality”. The image and the reality are perhaps always connected in some way, but the image will have a life of its own, for better or for worse.


  • Ida

    Lee-Sean and Joy, thanks for this conversation. I am a fan of Meiselas’ work, but I see how unfortunate it is that the issue as elaborated in the Harper’s piece boils down to ownership. I’m not surprised that Pablo Arauz’s disinterest in the effects of a photograph of him didn’t make it into Meiselas’ documentary. The relationship between events and their representation is tangential. Joy’s work is an opportunity to look closer on how this phenomenon plays out now. This opportunity has been muddled amid in the spasms of an outdated photography industry becoming economically enviable in the digital age.

  • Apparently Pablo Arauz is in the news again, because I’m getting a lot of traffic to my blog post.

    Susan Meiselas fotógrafa, “No creí que la insurrección triunfaría”:

    “Tenía mucho miedo”:

  • We’re discussing this again in Copyright and Cyberlaw at ITP this week – am reading Joy Garnett’s Steal this Look at the moment. Lots of other reading on fair use, de minimis, moral rights and copyright reform.

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