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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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