Rethinking Fair Use: Rebekah Modrak and the Art of Creative Critique


by Emily O’Connell
Picture of Rebekah Modrak

Rebekah Modrak: Visual artist and teacher at the University of Michigan

Rebekah Modrak, a visual artist and teacher at the University of Michigan, employs fair use to make better art.

Over the past few years Modrak has crafted and created multiple artworks that employ fair use examples, such as her 2013 project, Re Made. Her most recent work, entitled RETHINK SHINOLA, is bigger and bolder because of her experience with CAA’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use.

RETHINK SHINOLA critiques brand messages publicized by the Detroit-based company Shinola. Shinola’s name is a nod to a shoe polish company that promoted its product using racist caricatures of African Americans. Modrak’s artistic response takes aim at the company at three different critical levels. She begins with an exhibition of these racist images for viewers to consider before introducing a video that reimagines a recent GMC promotional video profiling the company. In that video, illustrations are layered above the original content containing the company’s owner to provide different hats historically representing the power and privilege of white men over minorities.

“This juxtaposition of the original source’s rhetoric and my commentary in the form of the painted hats, is key to exposing the arrogance of White male privilege, the myths of labor, and the falsity of Shinola’s connection with the city of Detroit,” Modrak said. She worried at first that sampling the original video would be too much to permit fair use protections, but grounded herself in the College Art Association’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts. After consulting the principles and the limitations, she realized fair use supports artistic criticism and the transformation of other materials, if there is new meaning being created.

In the final tier of her piece, fair use enabled Modrak to recreate a lecture that the president of Shinola gave at the University of Michigan. An actor substituted for the original speaker, and different images than were utilized in the original talk, in order to highlight Modrak’s point: the troubling and problematic rhetoric of Shinola’s president. The piece focuses on ‘white saviorism,’ and the ‘savageness’ Shinola perceived in Detroit. Her work thus conformed to the general principle of fair use for artists, as expressed in the CAA Code.

For Modrak, fair use represents possibility. Without CAA’s webinar and the published Code of Best Practices in Fair Use, the creation and displaying of RETHINK SINOLA “would not have been possible,” and Modrak’s artistic desire to “to hold a mirror up to a consumer brand so that its own language and representations expose the problematic messaging,” would never have been possible. Without a better understanding of her claims to fair use this project and others would have remained “an intimidating and illusive idea” at best.

“Education about fair use should be part of every artistic tool box,” Modrak claims, and we at CSMI are inclined to agree with her.


Rebekah Modrak Bio:

Re Made Link:

RETHINK SHINOLA project link:

CAA Code of Best Practices link:



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