From reading my entries so far, it may seem that I have a one-track mind: my only interest is photographing art. There is a reason for this singular focus up to this point. Over the past several months, I have been working on a project that is specifically about photographing art. The issues of art, photography, copyright, digital technologies, and social media have been dominating my thoughts and conversations for a very long time now. It seems only natural that those ideas would spill into this blog as well.
This project has grown out of my interest in free culture. This interest began with an angry museum guard yelling at me for taking some pictures. It grew as I began teaching myself some basic computer programming, where I quickly discovered how wonderful it is to have access to a body of free knowledge, ideas, and materials. Working with electronics, and having a constant need for datasheets and schematics only strengthened this opinion. But, it was Windows Vista that finally provided me with that final push to fully embrace the world of open source. What I found was a world where just about any small tool was freely available with just a few keystrokes (provided I could get the damn wireless connection to work) As a user, the benefits of this mindset, this ecosystem of permissive sharing is very appealing. But I’m not just a content consumer, I’m also an artist; I am a content creator. It’s only fair that as a producer, I should try to pass on the same benefits that I enjoy as a consumer.
The art world that I learned about back in art school was one that prides itself on being part of the cultural avant garde. My experience in the art business leaves me thinking that the culture surrounding free software is several decades ahead of the culture surrounding the arts.
The prohibition of museum photography is something that I believe turns art from a shared cultural artifact into a private commodity. This restriction turns a painting into an object where permission must be sought to do what comes naturally to myself and many of my peers: taking pictures of the cool things we see, and sharing the details online. Realizing that these private commodities live in publicly-funded museums only adds insult to injury. I can’t photograph what I paid for? The objects that are said to represent culture are locked out of the shared attitudes and practices that actually characterize our culture.
I am interested in culture, not commodities. Preventing images from being shared removes them from our shared cultural experience. To quote Cory Doctorow, “It’s not culture if you’re not allowed to talk about it.” Sending pictures back and forth and posting them online is how my generation talks about things.
As a painter, it could be said that I am somewhat shielded from the perceived threat of digital reproduction. The general idea is that painters deal with selling originals, not copies. I am selling a scarce, one-of-a-kind good. This makes my situation different from musicians, video makers, and authors, who are trying to sell copies. In the physical world, originals and copies are both scarce; if I take it, you don’t have it any more. Originals are certainly priced much higher, but both have a value. Downloaded music and ebooks have caused a complete shift in those markets. If I take it, you still have it.
An extension of the argument that painters are shielded from the threat of digital reproduction is that it’s not my place to ramble on about free culture, since it doesn’t concern me. Since I’m not facing the same challenges myself, I am not able to discuss them. A legitimate argument in favour of free culture can only be made by those who are directly affected by the challenges it presents. I reject this argument.
This opinion ignores both prints and live music. Artists can make a good chunk of their money selling reproductions of their work as posters in frame shops. Musicians can make a good chunk of their money in live performances. Authors can make money with talks and signings.
The argument painters only make their money from originals, while authors and musicians only make money from copies is simply false. There are opportunities for sales of both original one-of-a-kind goods and reproductions among nearly all creative fields. I am affected by free culture; it does concern me.
But this defence still gives too much ground to the other side. By stating that painters also make money from selling copies, I have implicitly agreed with the idea that artists must be faced with the threat of reproduction to make a legitimate argument on the issue of free culture. Does someone really have to have both a vested interest and first-hand experience to make a legitimate criticism or suggestion? Does Roger Ebert have to be an acclaimed director to be able to criticize movies? Does a person have to be an accomplished musician themselves before they are able to make valid criticisms about other musicians?
There are at least five different ideas that are colliding in the free-culture/copyright debate: legal, economic, creators, technical, and the audience.
A legal argument could be, “infringement is wrong, so don’t do it.”
An economic argument could be “digital copies are infinite. Any time supply is infinite while demand is limited means a price crash or bubble burst is just around the corner.”
A creator’s argument could be “artists work hard, and would like to be paid for what they do”
A technical argument could be “computers, by their very design make perfect copies of things. That’s what they do best. Every single use of anything involves multiple copies being made. Copyright law is fundamentally incompatible with copyright law.”
An argument from the audience might be “Digital content should be free, it is sharable, more content only enriches my life, how can a good person deny sharing life-enriching media with others?”
That’s five different angles that can be used to approach the issue. How can it be determined which side is right? Who is the authentic voice on the issue? Are lawyer-economists with a career split between programming and performing the only people able to talk about free culture? Does the validity of an argument depend on the person making it? Personally, I’m of the opinion that arguments from authority are a bad way of deciding things.
I wanted to create a series of work that focused directly on some of these tensions. It was a struggle to figure out how this could be done. I’m not interested in simply depicting the behaviour through images; I wanted to make art that was far more engaging than that. I wanted to make something that actually required people to participate in the kinds of actions that I’m thinking about. I wanted to make art that requires photography to be seen. I wanted something that clearly highlights how first hand experience differs from documentation. I wanted to make something that is friendly to social media.
The project I am talking about is “Take a Picture”.