Culture

The Supreme Court Is Divided Over Andy Warhol’s Prince Portraits

On October 12, the Supreme Court will hold a hearing over Andy Warhol’s portraits of Prince, first captured by photographer Lynn Goldsmith.

The Supreme Court is days away from holding a trial on pop art genius Andy Warhol and his depiction of Prince in a ’80s painting. The original photographer of Prince was taken in 1981 by photographer and musician Lynn Goldsmith, who captured artists including Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, The Police and others.

According to a legal brief, Goldsmith photographed ‘The Purple One’ while he was still a budding musician, but in 1984, Vanity Fair licensed one of the photos that Goldsmith took for $400. The photo was used for an “artist’s reference,” the artist in question being Warhol, who captured Prince’s likeness for a silkscreen painting as part of the “Prince Series.” Vanity Fair ultimately used one of the paintings for an accompanying profile on the musician.

“Unlike Goldsmith’s focus on the individual subject’s unique human identity, Warhol’s portraits sought to use the flattened, cropped, exotically colored and unnatural depiction of Prince’s disembodied head to communicate a message about the impact of celebrity and defining the contemporary conditions of life,” wrote Thomas Crow, a professor of modern art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Goldsmith discovered that the images existed in 2016, following Prince’s death, also learning that  the Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF) licensed one of Warhol’s additional paintings for $10,000.

On Goldsmith’s website, the photographer describes the legal battle as a “crusade,” in her efforts to ensure that “copyright law does not become so diluted by the definition of fair use that visual artists lose the rights to their work.”

After Goldsmith and AMF were unable to resolve their dispute privately, the foundation filed a preemptive lawsuit against Goldsmith in 2017. The foundation is now asking the Supreme Court to acknowledge that the paintings aren’t violating Goldsmith’s copyright protections.

Over the last five years, the legal battle between Goldsmith and AWF has gone underway, with a Manhattan judge ruling in favor of Warhol in 2019. However, in 2021, judge Gerard E. Lynch claimed that the fair use ruling was an “error,” adding that “the district judge should not assume the role of art critic and seek to ascertain the intent behind or meaning of the works at issue”.

Next week, lawyers representing AWF and Goldsmith will make their case in the US Supreme Court to examine whether Warhol’s Prince artwork has artistic intent, or infringes on Goldsmith’s copyright.

Jaelani Turner-Williams

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with bylines at Billboard, MTV News, NYLON, Recording Academy and more. Read her mind on Twitter at @hernameisjae.

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