LACMA's Magritte exhibit: This is not fair use

The "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images" exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art manages to both celebrate and betray fair use at the same time. It's a beautifully designed exhibition that incorporates themes from Magritte's work into the carpet and ceiling, the bowler hats on the attendants, and the exterior of the building.

Inside, they've hung many of Magritte's famous works, and, accompanying these works, they've placed dozens of contemporary sculptures and paintings that riff off of Magritte, making fun of him or paying homage to him or commenting on him. These are canonical fair uses -- an artist who takes from another artist and uses his work to make new work. In these other works, from the likes of Warhol and Antin, there are instances of Magritte's work being duplicated in photos and paint.

So far so good -- there's a clear message from the paintings in the exhibit: culture is well-served by liberal rules that let one person remix another's creation.

But that message is undermined by the exhibition policy on photos: no photos are allowed in the exhibit. If you take out your camera, one of the bowler-hatted guards will come up to you and shout at you (literally shout at you!): "No photos allowed!" They won't even let you take out a phone or PDA and make notes with it, in case you're sneakily taking photos on the premises.

This is a riddle: does the Magritte exhibition celebrate fair use, or deny it? Does it want to inspire us to remix Magritte, or warn us off the idea of reproduction without permission?

The rest of LACMA has a laudable photos-encouraged policy, but the special exhibits contain loaned works and many of the lenders stipulate that no photos be allowed. When I quizzed the LACMA curators about this by email, they admitted that many of the works in the special exhibit could probably be photographed, but that it would be complicated to set up a room where photos were allowed and another room where photos aren't allowed.

I sympathize with the curators' desire to get the best works possible for their exhibit, but one has to wonder -- would they accept loans of paintings that came on the condition that those who viewed them had to salute, stand on one leg, or promise to vote Republican?

If the point of the exhibit is to show us the wonders of fair use, how can LACMA justify taking paintings in on terms that betray fair use?

This isn't new, of course. Lots of curators sign up to take works in on these terms. The Greenwich Observatory Museum, a science museum that celebrates the use of technology to capture the world around us, has a no-photos policy that apparently stems from promises made to the owners of the antique clocks on display.

When we absolve curators of responsibility for defending our fair use rights, we make this situation worse. It's true that banning photography makes more money for museums. It helps them run penny-ante picture-postcard rackets. It makes borrowing works cheaper and easier.

But a curator's job is to inform and educate, to spread culture and to preserve it. The works in a museum aren't its property -- they're its responsibility. Public galleries are supposed to disseminate our global heritage, not lock it away from us. The more museums and galleries accept onerous lending terms, the more standard they become

The curatorial staff at LACMA were very nice when I emailed them. They offered to let me photograph the exhibit as a member of the press. They offered to loan me a pencil and paper so that I wouldn't have to take out my phone to make notes.

But they wouldn't answer any of my questions about fair use and the exhibit. If they believe that the collectors who own Warhol's paintings have the right to stop me from photographing his work, does it follow that they believe that all the photographers and designers whom Warhol took from without asking should have had the same right?

In other words: what's the point of the LACMA Magritte exhibit? Is it to teach us to love fair use, or to abandon it?


Update: Here's Magnus's remix of the Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe painting.

Update 2: And another from Jeremiah.

Update 3: Freddy sez, "for some time now we have been using a version titled Ceci N'est Pas Groovecore with a graffiti'd pipe as part of our online identity. It is featured in the slide show on our MySpace page.

Cathy sez, "I agree that art museums should let people take photographs inside. I was rudely stopped from using my camera, but managed to take a couple of photos on the sly anyway. They said it was the policy not to let anyone take photographs in the special exhibits, but the permanent ones I could snap away -- Link, Link.

Jake has, "A somewhat hastily made but very clever Magritte remix for our *nix-using friends."

Update 4: Magnus adds, "This is from the streets of Vienna, from a graffitied wall: 'das ist keine gallerie' - this is not a gallery" -- Link, Link