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On a rainy Friday night in Mexico’s capital, Antonio ‘Gritón’ Ortiz poured himself a glass of tequila. Across the room, “The Girl from Ipanema” quietly seeped from a paint-splattered radio. “I’ll listen to almost any music while I’m working,” the 60-year-old artist said. “Like Yes! I really like Yes. The progressive rock band. You know them, right?” Water was boiling on the stove, and he poured it into a pre-packaged Korean noodle bowl. It was 10 p.m., time for dinner in Mexico. “I’ve been painting since I was 22, and not all of those years were easy,” he said. “But I do what I enjoy, and so far I’ve been able to make that work.”
For the past 28 years, Gritón has not paid a dime to the Tax Administration Service (SAT), the Mexican equivalent of the IRS. But he is no criminal. In fact, in a country that has lost an estimated $872 billion to money laundering and tax evasion over the past four decades, Gritón is in good standing with the law. Like more than 700 artists across Mexico, he takes part in a Pago en Especie (Payment in Kind) program—the only one of its type in the world—that allows artists to pay federal income taxes with their own artwork.
The program was hatched in 1957, in the throes of the so-called “Mexican Miracle,” a period of 40 years that saw sustained annual economic growth of between 3 and 4 percent. As legend has it, muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the most influential artists of his generation, approached the secretariat of finance in 1957 with a proposal to keep a friend and fellow artist out of jail for tax evasion: Let him pay his debt in art. The agreement laid the foundation for Pago en Especie, which today is a public collection of nearly 7,000 paintings, sculptures, and graphics accepted as tax payments from some of Mexico’s best-known artists.
Hallelujah and hosannas be unto all peoples: the Second Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States of America has decided, in its infinite art-historical wisdom, that 1920s Expressionist photomontage is worthwhile art and is protected by the “fair use” doctrine in American copyright law. On 25 April, in a reversal of a lower court’s findings, the appellate judges decided that when Richard Prince used banal Rasta shots by the photographer Patrick Cariou as the source of 25 angstful paste-ups—late-in-the-day derivations from Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters—he was clearly transforming Cariou’s originals into very different works of art. Sure, those judges are 90 years behind the times, but who ever said that justice moved fast?
On the other hand, because of another part of the same court’s decision, the art world should see weeping and gnashing of teeth: the judges determined that appropriation art, which has been found worthy and fascinating by critics, curators and collectors for a mere 40 years, might not deserve to be protected as part of the “activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public” that, according to one of that court’s own judges, is a goal of copyright law.
The Art Newspaper