24 January 2015

Political Art Part 3: Copyright Issues

When I was a full-time commercial artist/illustrator, I spent a lot of time educating clients about copyright. For example, a client might come to me with an idea, like "This is an article about peace; let's use a dove in the illustration" and then they would assume that they should own the completed illustration because it was based on their idea. Never mind that their dove idea was completely unoriginal, I would still have to explain that you can't copyright an idea, only a particular expression of an idea, so that expression belonged to me, by law. I learned to think of copyright not as a single right, but a bundle of rights that I could sell one by one, for various negotiated prices. For instance, I could sell reproduction rights for a certain time period, or for print only, or web only, or only for a certain audience (domestic but not international) etc. If the client wanted 'ownership' of the copyright, they would have to pay for that right.

Now that I'm doing fine art, however, I've developed a very different sense of copyright and image-making. As a fine artist I consider my task not to create images for commercial resale but to create images that are about images, images that are about the society I live in. No matter where the images come from, or who created them, certain images become iconic in our hypervisual cultural milieu. Certain images come to signify an entire event, and become shorthand for it. Like these:

I think of these kinds of iconic images as part of our public record, part of our visual commons.

This week a well known European artist, Luc Tuymans, was convicted in Belgium of plagiarizing a news photo (plagiarism seems to mean copyright infringement in Belgium), and I'm guessing that the photographer who sued Tuymans is thinking about copyright in the way I used to think of it when I was an illustrator. She (and her lawyer) are right, Tuymans did use her photo as reference for his painting. He doesn't deny this. I completely understand the photographer's fierce desire to protect her right to make money from her work. And yet, as Tuymans's lawyers wrote in a press release, “How can an artist question the world with his art if he cannot use images from that world?”

These are competing needs, the needs of the photographer to be compensated for her work and the needs of the artist/painter to comment on current events. This is the arena in which I really understand that commercial art and fine art operate in different worlds. Personally, I think the fact that the photo is of a public figure and that it appeared in a newspaper (not actually sure if this is true; it's called a "news photo" in the press) makes it fair game for artistic commentary. Yet, I sympathize with the photographer's sense that she should be compensated, or at least consulted, given that the painting is a close re-rendering of the photo. The NY Times article I linked to above states that the photographer tried numerous times to contact Tuymans, and I think that it was stupid of him not to respond.

These are complicated questions with no easy answers. I lean toward the rights of artists to freely comment on our visual culture, including appropriating copyrighted works, but I'm also sensitive to the needs of freelance commercial artists who have only their copyrights to keep them from insolvency. I often use public domain historical photos to avoid copyright problems, but if I use a contemporary photo I try to get permission if I'm closely copying it. I'll admit that if I'm not copying it closely, I let it slide. In the U.S. we have a category in copyright law called "fair use," which can cover such things as news photos and visual citation, but it's still a gray area at best. As a so-called political artist who used to be a commercial freelance artist, these issues hit close to home for me.

20 January 2015

Political Art Part 2

Happy 2015, everyone! I'm just getting rolling again after a nice long rest over the holidays. While on vacation I read 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis, a NY City art critic. I had heard about the book from several sources, and was especially interested in it because it speaks to how art relates to the culture broadly, including much discussion about political art. Davis is rooted in Marxist thought and spends a good deal of the book talking about how art as a profession lies in a contradictory space in a capitalist system. It took me a while to get interested in this discussion, but Davis's Theses (you can read the theses here) actually explain a lot of the discomfort that I and a lot of other professional artists I know experience. I don't want to go into a long synopsis of the book, but below are a few rough notes.

According to Davis, visual artists are truly middle class (engaged in self-directed production) rather than capitalist (profiting from the labor of others) or working class (selling one's time/labor). As Davis writes, "the dream of being an artist is the dream of making a living off the products of one's own mental or physical labor while fully being able to control and identify with that labor." Artists hold a certain cachet as people who are able to work with independence and individuality, but since fine art (as opposed to music, film, acting) is not organized around capitalist production, it has very little importance to society. This is an interesting way to contextualize something that I've been painfully aware of for quite a few years now. On one hand I feel privileged, in that I am able to work independently and with great freedom, and people in my world seem to respect that freedom very much. On the other hand I feel besieged, in that earning a living from my art is difficult if not impossible. I feel successful and not successful, all at the same time.

Davis explains this financial conundrum by pointing out that while artists themselves are middle class, the capitalist class dominates the sphere of art (corporations, auction houses, trustees, monied collectors). Because of this, the real roles of artworks in our society are 1.) as luxury good, 2.) as financial instrument, and/or 3.) as a "symbolic escape-valve for radical impulses." That last one is an interesting idea, especially in light of the fact that I consider myself a political artist. I'm not sure yet if I agree with it, but I'm going to look for examples of art as an escape valve…

A simple and obvious idea that I needed to hear explicitly: the word 'art' is double-sided. On one hand, 'art' is identified as self-expression and creativity, thus belonging to everyone, and on the other hand it is a desirable but highly competitive profession. Thinking clearly about this distinction caused a great many of the puzzling interactions I've had with friends and family to make more sense: many times when I'm talking about 'art' with non-artists, we're not using the same definition. I'm almost always talking about the professional definition of the word, and they are most often talking about 'creativity' and 'self-expression.' Just being aware of this will be very useful for me in the future.

Some questions raised in this book about political art:
- Can art raise consciousness, as many artists assert?
- If so, can it raise consciousness enough to spur action?
- To whom is political art addressed? If only to 'art people,' is it political at all?
- How to expand the audience beyond the ruling class?
- What to make of the fact that art usually becomes part of a broader political conversation only in a negative way (eg. under fire from conservatives).

And a favorite quote:
Art making is a complex social act and one of the primary passions; perhaps not so primary as food or love or sex or shelter – but very very important. People will suffer for art, for a shot at creative self-expression.

20 December 2014

Political Art

Ty the Yellow Lab ponders where to put this box.

Yesterday afternoon the pieces from my NSA series that didn't sell (and yes, a bunch of them sold!) came back to me from Charles Krause Reporting Gallery, reminding me that I need to figure out how to store all the framing supplies that keep multiplying in my basement. My basement being damp, it's not an ideal place to store anything except the plexi and glass, but the living space in my house is only 1240 square feet, so I'm hard pressed just to store my prints, much less framing supplies. Fellow artists, your storage suggestions are welcome.

The return of the NSA work also reminded me that I've intended to blog some of my thoughts on political art. Charles Krause Gallery focuses on political art and, as my regular readers know, so do I. I don't often articulate why that's my focus, though. I'm not even sure if I know -- it feels more like a calling than a choice. But I'd like to make an attempt to define and articulate more clearly why it is that I'm drawn to socio-political work, what makes art political, and what constitutes 'good' political art. I'll blog about this occasionally in the new year, and I welcome your thoughts.

Today, an interview with artist Mark Bradford flickered across my computer screen and I enjoyed some of his words about socio-political work. He sounds a bit like me when he says "My art, I never could completely separate it from the social. I could never just have a hermetic studio life. It’s just part of me. I’ve always been so curious of everything that’s happening—social anthropology, social history.” Also like me, he does a lot of reading when he gets interested in a topic. Here, he studies sea monsters for a body of work of the same name:

 “Another layer for me that I got really interested in is that we always have this thing about making the other dangerous. So I started reading these books. I read this book on sea monsters. The 16th and 17th century maps, they didn’t understand the ocean, so it was a deep, dark, mysterious place. In these books of these sea monsters, they were half dolphins and half walruses. They had names for them. They had categories. I just became so fascinated by this. I just thought: this is so cool. What they didn’t understand, they made terrifying.”

One thing that I personally gain from working with historic material is that I get to see that history does actually repeat itself. This is both reassuring and horrifying -- reassuring because it shows that the things that make us human are persistent, and we are not alone; horrifying because we seem to never learn some very basic lessons. 

Check out the interview with Mark Bradford here.

19 December 2014

Radical Faeries (1979)

CONSORT (Radical Faeries)
White line woodcut and toner transfer
Image size: 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm)
Paper size: 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm)
Paper: Mawata
Edition: 3 

The Radical Faeries movement was founded in 1979 in California by Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, and two others. Radical Faeries was not so much a political group as a spiritual one, celebrating and exploring gayness itself as a source of wisdom and initiation. Sex-positive and often rurally based, Faerie circles incorporate elements of paganism, anarchism, environmentalism, shamanism, and indigenous spiritualities in their gatherings, which are called sanctuaries. Today, Radical Faeries embody a wide range of genders, sexual orientations, and identities, with many gatherings open to all, while some still focus on the particular spiritual experience of man-loving men.

At least for the time being, that's the full set of prints for the "Counterspells" chapter.

18 December 2014

GLAD and Lambda Legal (1973, 1978)

BUILD (GLAD, Lambda Legal)
White line woodcut
Image size: 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm)
Paper size: 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm)
Paper: Mawata
Edition: 3
GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) and Lambda Legal are both non-profit legal rights organizations that work to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression. Lambda Legal, founded in 1973, has a national focus while GLAD, founded in 1978 in response to a sting operation conducted by Boston police at the Boston Public Library, centers their work in New England.

An early victory for GLAD came in 1980 when they represented Aaron Fricke, an 18-year-old student at Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, who won the right to bring a same-sex date to a high school dance. GLAD also represented the plaintiffs in the Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health case that won gay marriage rights in Massachusetts in 2003.

Lambda Legal was instrumental in the Lawrence vs. Texas case.

17 December 2014

Dignity USA and Integrity (1969, 1974)

SANCTIFY (Dignity USA, Integrity)
White line woodcut
Image size: 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm)
Paper size: 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm)
Paper: Mawata
Edition: 3

Historically, Christian churches have led the charge in the fight to deny LGBTQ civil rights, but there have been denominations (such as United Church of Christ) that have been allies, and several organizations within more hostile denominations emerged in the early years to support LGBTQ members. Dignity USA, founded by Father Pat Nidorf, began in San Diego, California, in 1969 as a "rap group" for gay and lesbian Catholics. And in the Episcopal Church, Integrity was started in 1974 by a gay man named Louie Crew, who came to San Francisco on a teaching fellowship and was looking for a way to meet other gay Episcopalians. For decades, these groups have quietly but consistently ministered to gays who do not want to leave the church even as the church struggles to accept them.

15 December 2014

PFLAG (1972)

White line woodcut
Image size: 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm)
Paper size: 14.5" x 20.5" (37 x 52.4 cm)
Paper: Mawata
Edition: 3

Part of a series of prints based on the shape of a triangle celebrating various organizations that helped move gay rights forward in the U.S. during the later 20th century.

PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is the United States' largest organization for parents, families, friends, and allies of LGBTQ people. The group began in April 1972 when Queens schoolteacher Jeanne Manford walked alongside her gay son at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, carrying a sign that read "Parents of Gays: Unite in Support of Our Children." So much has changed since the 1970s, it's difficult to convey how much courage and resolve Manford's simple act of marching beside her son displayed. The overwhelming response to that act led Jeanne, her husband Jules, and early pioneers of the LGBT equality movement to create a support group for members of the LGBT community, their parents, family, and friends.

The first time I encountered PFLAG was at the First National March on Washington in 1979. As we walked the route, a number of people lined the streets. I saw marchers who had stepped aside to see the size of the contingent and cheer us on, men in suits taking photographs (we assumed them to be government agents of some sort), religious counter-demonstrators holding signs condemning us to hell. And then I saw a lone woman holding a hand-made sign: "I'm proud of my gay child." Tears sprang to my eyes, and I unconsciously took a step toward her. She spotted me right away and moved toward me, and we hugged. It was a moment of healing and connection and possibility that I'll never forget.

Thank you, PFLAG, for holding us.