Who Owns Art?

On the first day of class, Dr. McCoy asked us to think of questions to ask Professor Prince after looking at some of his block prints. One that my group came up with was “How does the ability to mass-reproduce art (such as the prints) affect the way you perceive your art? Does it, at any point, cease to feel like the art is truly yours?”

My expectation was that the answer would be yes, that after so many reproductions, the art ceases to feel like it belongs to him because that was what the answer would be for me. My grandfather was an oil painter, one of the many forms of art that take intense dedication and a lot of time to produce only one original; the reproduction of one of his works of art would be nigh impossible and take just as long to make as the first, rendering it impossible to have more than one original. Plus, spending that long on one canvas makes that single unreproducible canvas very personal. Thus, my expectation was that the answer would be that of course the 25th print would not feel as personal as the first print, or the woodblock itself- how could it, when it is one of many that are exactly the same?

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Professor Prince this at the gallery opening on Wednesday the 30th, and the answer was not what I expected it would be. The gist of his response (keep in mind that I do not have a recording of this conversation) was that no, each print feels deeply personal, regardless of how many he makes. He then went on to explain that each print comes from his own hands and his own original woodblock, and in fact, he prefers being able to make as many prints as possible so that as many people have access to his work as possible. In fact, it makes it feasible for him to even give away some of the prints instead of having to charge high prices for original works. Professor Prince then told me the story of how he came to start valuing his art in the way that capitalism wants us to (i.e. in terms of monetary value rather than emotional impact and other qualitative measures) – I won’t recount the story here as I don’t want to get any details wrong, and anyway, there is no way I could tell it the way that he did. Regardless, thanks to his generosity in giving a detailed answer to my question, I have started thinkING about the interaction between art, artist, and ownership of said art.

A simple google search of “ownership of art” leads to a really interesting article about the ownership of art in terms of buyer-seller relations that raises a lot of questions- after a buyer obtains a piece of art, how much authority do they now have over it? How does copyright play a role?

Something that I didn’t know until forced to consider it via this article is that artists do have a copyright on their work regardless of whether or not they register one. According to this article, “your art is considered copyright protected from ‘the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.’” Interestingly, the author of this article claims that it is only necessary to take further action in terms of copyrighting your own work if you art has some sort of commercial appeal or is a design that is likely to end up on a t-shirt or coffee mug, harking back to my earlier mention of Professor Prince’s journey in valuing his own art the way that capitalism does.

To get back to the original article cited, what if someone uses your work to profit in a more indirect way, perhaps not even consciously knowing that they have infringed on your copyright? The example Steve Schlackman, the author, gives is a piece of art in the home of a rich person. Say your art is bought by a multi-millionaire who then displays it in their living room. Because they have such a lovely home, an interior design magazine comes and takes pictures for an article, which includes images of your art. This could be a copyright infringement for obvious reasons: the magazine has used your art to attract readership, directly affecting their profits. Unless they can claim “fair use,” they are liable for the reproduction of your art without permission.

However, the thing that really interests me about this article is its mention of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990. Once someone buys your art, what can they do to alter it? The example the article gives is a millionaire wanting to cut an oil painting into three pieces to make a triptych, which under this act, they cannot do. According to the Harvard Law page discussing this act, before 1990, pretty much anyone could do anything to any visual medium without the artist’s permission. There were certain exceptions (for example, Monty Python was able to ban people from airing edited episodes of Flying Circus), but for the most part, nothing could be done about people wishing to alter a piece of artwork they legally bought. A relatively well-known example of this is Tilted Arc, a site-specific installation by Richard Serra that was almost universally hated due to it bisecting a square in a federal office complex. Against the wishes of the artist (who says it is site-specific to that square and to place it anywhere else would be destroying it), the piece was removed and Serra lost his $30 million lawsuit against the government.

The Visual Artists Rights Act changed this. The law states that artists have (limited) authority to the right “to prevent intentional distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation; and the right to prevent the destruction of a work of ‘recognized stature.’” There are exceptions to this rule (works made of materials that age or become weathered are not protected against decomposition, for example) and artists can sign a waiver to give up their rights to their own work. Something that caught my eye was the “recognized stature” clause, which I think is problematic- who decides if a work is of recognized stature and is worth being saved from destruction? Assuming the work has multiple copies, such as Professor Prince’s woodblock prints, could any one of them be considered a work of “recognized stature,” and if so, how many of the prints would be protected? These are questions worth considering when talking about the rights of an artist to a work that has multiple originals. It is also worth noting that works produced prior to the passage of this law are exempt and that it applies only to visual art.

So, who really owns art? In a situation like the one we found ourselves in at our first class, the art that Professor McCoy has belongs to her – to a point. Professor Prince has the ability to stop any alterations or reproduction to a point, but as it is hers, Professor McCoy also has a certain right to it. Thanks to this research I have been wondering how many different works of art have been altered or destroyed thanks to a lack of legislation – we know now that many classic art pieces were later changed, but how many more modern art pieces, even from the 20th century, have been lost or are no longer in their original form? I haven’t been able to find any numbers, but I imagine it is more than I would like.

This also made me think of the Sorrow Songs discussed in Souls of Black Folk. DuBois makes the important point that music that is quintessentially American actually comes from and belongs the black people of this country. Everyone knows the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” but how many people acknowledge its origins? Because they have no single known artist, there is no law that applies to this ownership, but nonetheless, they do belong to the black music tradition of America, not just America itself. And yet, DuBois writes, “Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?” (229). In this giving, the Sorrow Songs have become part of American culture, but much like art produced before 1990 could be, they have been changed and integrated into society in a way that often forgets their origins. The original owners of these songs have given us a gift, but it is our duty to recognize the magnitude. All of America may own this art now, but like all art with a copyright on it, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the original artist and protect and preserve the original meaning.

So, as we discuss artwork, especially art created prior to 1990, it is important to keep in mind the rights (or lack thereof) of the artists to their own works and to remember how often art is illegally reproduced and commercialized against the wishes of the original artist. It is something I am sure I will be thinkING about and grappling with for the entire semester, so thank you, Professor Prince, for thoughtfully answering my question about your feeling of personal ownership over reproducible art and sparking a journey into copyright law and the legal ownership rights of visual artists.

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