So who does own art?
And what is art ownership about? Only in the simplest of all versions is it about owning an object. The thing is, it has been increasingly clear that ownership is one of the most delicate - and taboo - issues of contemporary art. Yes, we have the art market which helps us keep it all together. But the fragility of the system is impressive.
Once you get to Manzoni's Artist's Shit, and keep on going all the way to Cattelan's provocations, something strange happens: not only is the value of the work conventional, but the convention can change quite abruptly. In the case of Manzoni's work, we still have an object. But the further we go into the conceptual & performative realms, the more difficult it is to speak of ownership. After all, how can one own Yves Klein's emptiness?
If art is intellectual property, then what about the image of the work? Is it mimesis? Or a copy of the thing, i.e., a sub-product of the original work? How different is my picture of something from that thing? We often assume it's close - possibly because it's simpler this way. A reproduction is another example of production. But then, what can be reproduced?
If the question is old, new technologies seem to give it a reality bite. We are all photographers. Reproduction is so easy, it seems impossible to judge it by the same strict rules. The tiny video cameras and cell phones make it all-too-easy to take a piece of the world with you.
There's the rub: we somehow feel taking a picture is taking a piece of the world. Reproduction is re-production. Are we therefore constantly stealing the world away? Doesn't that seem a bit naive? Isn't the problem rather in the authorship, and ownership? That is what is happening: by taking the picture of a picture, we are re-apropriating it. Its original value, given by the convention of authorship ('it came out of the head of this person') and ownership ('it belongs to that person'), is questioned. Or maybe rather, challenged, since we can easily imagine someone acknowledging the copyright and taking care of all the related formal issues. (see this article about copyright and contemporary art). There are several issues here. One of them is the question of what exactly constitutes a work of art. If my work includes someone else's work, or copies it, is it a simple legal issue for me to regulate? What if I somehow took the same picture as someone else? Contrary to Joy Garnett, I do believe this can be a serious issue and is not about the public space being public domain. The image, even if it is "just a photo", is still a work. And the difficulty seems to be in acknoledging it every time, that is, even if we just happen to bump into the same view as someone else. Is it a question of recognition? It seems it simply stopped making sense to acknowledge every single picture taken from somewhere else, every picture of a picture of a screenshot of a security camera... But what is the alternative?
What complicates this is that some contemporary art already focuses on challenging the idea of authorship and ownership. That's where the really strange paradoxes appear. That's where one can very well own an 'original' that was made as a questioning of the idea of the original, where the remains of a performance that was a statement for the ephemeral gain the status of permanent art value, etc.etc.
We might be used to this, but there is something incredibly hypocritical about our easy acceptance of it. Why shouldn't we consider that a work of art can actually have a self-eliminating value, that is, have its value limited to an experience that excludes any form of later valuing. This could mean the creation of an exhibition of works not for sale, but it could also mean acknowledging all the works that have been created, often by celebrated and expensive artists, into the void. Such as Gordon Matta-Clark's public, 'illegal' works. They fascinate us today precisely because they seemed destined to disappear, challenging the very idea of an object of value.
Another way of seeing this is attacking (yet again) the very notion of copyright by exposing it to the test of the world. Do we really live our lives in a way that makes room for copyright? Or is it just so out of date that it would need a serious rethinking? See the iMoma, where pictures from the New York MOMA are published. Those are illegally taken pictures, pictures of the visitors, pictures that make the ownership of art-as-image problematic, to say the least. And the officials trying to fight this 'crime wave' seem like ridiculous bureaucrats. But on the other hand - what are they supposed to do? Let it go? And what remains?
Read the story about the iMoma and the image pirates issue at Newsgrist.
Bruce Nauman, Human/Need/Desire (currently at the MOMA)