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.