I’ll probably have more to say on this topic with time–something about Picasso’s use of African imagery to fuel his own creative processes, the Japonisme style in France, Duchamp’s readymades, etc–but for now I just want to draw your attention to a very singular case:
See here photographer Arne Svenson’s photograph series The Neighbors. On the presumption that maybe this has been taken down, as it should be, you should know that the content is a number of photographs–quite artistic-looking, for sure–of various neighbors taken through their windows without their knowledge or consent. (For reasons that should be or become obvious, I will not replicate these photos here.) The lives of others are appropriated all the time in the creative process, as our own lives and experiences are inextricably linked to others. Writers do a better or worse job of disguising their real-world inspiration, and this often leads to questionable ethical situations–such as when the real-life Kramer drew flak for actor Michael Richards’ racist outburst. But in this case, the ethics doesn’t seem very questionable to me. Photography has long been acknowledged as a complex but threatening gesture, and Svenson’s photographs in and of themselves are threateningly voyeuristic, particularly those directed at people who have the curtains or screen drawn but are still partially visible: they have made a clear gesture toward privacy that should be respected. But on top of that you have his practice surrounding the photographs–not consulting the ‘subjects’ for ex post facto consent, taking these to a gallery, displaying them, and asking for money.
The intersections of privacy, art, and business have always been muddied in a country whose moral foundations are set against each other, but it seems clear to me that the rule we should follow here is the same one we follow with other ethical gray areas: consent. What we have here is not only a lack of consent but a celebration of the invasive gaze, that sees people when they are feeling week or trying to remain hidden. Although in itself very creepy, the act of photographing could at least have been mitigated by getting the consent of the people involved, but that is the exact opposite path from the one Svenson took. The appropriation and exploitation of the lives of others may be an important part of art history, but it should remain in the past.