Photo-bans at pop art shows -- irony impairment, or Dadaism?

My latest Guardian column, "Warhol is turning in his grave," describes the photography ban in place at the Pop Art Portraits show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It's an amazing show, and practically every work hung in it violates someone's copyrights, trademarks, or both (this is pop art, after all). In a stunning display of either Dadaism or irony-impairment, the gallery has hung the show with a "no photography" policy (not a "no flash photography" policy, either), and the even extend the ban to the "no photography" signs themselves, which, they claim, are copyrighted works.

Any gallery that bans reproducing Warhol on the grounds that you'll violate his copyright should be forced into an off-site, all-day irony training session.

So what's the message of the show? Is it a celebration of remix culture, revelling in the endless possibilities opened up by appropriating and reusing images without permission?

Or is it the epitaph on the tombstone of the sweet days before the UN set up the World Intellectual Property Organization and the ensuing mania for turning everything that can be sensed and recorded into someone's property?

Does this show - paid for with public money, with some works that are themselves owned by public institutions - seek to inspire us to become 21st century pop artists, armed with cameraphones, websites and mixers, or is it supposed to inform us that our chance has passed and we'd best settle for a life as information serfs who can't even make free use of what our eyes see and our ears hear?

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  1. They won’t keep your memories, Dybbuk. But if they can find a way to charge you a license fee for them, they’ll definitely try that.

  2. There was a beautiful exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, of the Portuguese trading empire. It was huge, spanning three continents, hundreds of years, many religions and filling the entire museum. Beautiful pieces of art and luxuries from China, Japan, East Indies, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Nothing was younger than 200 years old…except for in the back corner of a far flung corridor that I almost missed. There was one, single contemporary work of Portuguese art. It had nothing to do with any other part of the exhibit, but because of it, I could not photograph anything else in exhibit. As a final bit of Irony, because if its out of the way location, I had zero trouble photographing it.

  3. Forget photographs–make a sketch, then sell it as an original. “Portrait of an Exhibit with a Dumb Ban” would be a fitting title.

  4. Ironic indeed … but most likely not the choice of the museum, but imposed upon the exhibition by groups such as ARS, ADAGP, DACS, and CISAC, which represent artists and artists’ estates regarding copyright and licensing. I would guess that the museum is contractually obliged to ban photography in exchange for the right to display the works. I agree it’s ridiculous, but it’s probably not the museum’s choice.

  5. Be not so harsh, M’Lord, lest we run out of idiots to fight our wars – Truly, the Sport of Kings!

  6. It’s just the Disney principle at work.

    Build your work off the works of others, profit greatly, then restrict others’ building off your own.

  7. Gyusan – that is exactly the case. Museums rarely have full copyright to contemporary works and must obey the copyright holders associations and individuals. As a result, they must prohibit photography within exhibitions containing those sorts of works. Generally speaking, museums these days would *love* to allow free range photography, but the current copyright wars means that they have to ‘err” on the side of caution. They don’t pull in enough funding to beat back litigious copyright holders.

    I have to say that I am very, very tired of Cory calling out public institutions like this (he harps on this about every 3-4 months or so). It’s like blaming the pizza delivery person that you got veggie instead of pepperoni. If Cory wants to see unlimited photography in public places, he needs to call out the artist’s rights associations. Museums can’t do much to solve the problem.

    I have a rant building about this topic. With any luck, I’ll get it posted tonight over at Musematic, a blog about museum technology.

  8. The rightsholders told the museum that they needed to “protect” the “copyright” in their NO PHOTOS signs?

  9. “It’s like blaming the pizza delivery person that you got veggie instead of pepperoni.”

    No — it’s like blaming the pizzeria for buying spoiled vegetables and putting them on your pizza. I’m not a customer of the artist rights groups. I didn’t pay the artist rights groups 10 pounds to get into the gallery. I’m the museum’s customer, the gallery’s customer.

  10. I agree that crying “copyright!” on the no photos signs is dumb, but it’s probably a quick reaction on the part of security guards who just want to keep cameras out of those particular galleries. I admit that sometimes, some museum staff make mistakes, swept up by the copyright wars. when those errors happen – have at. This is not one of those mistakes.

    Ok, here’s a rundown of how exhibitions are organized:

    1. Exhibitions are organized either by an external group or internally by the museum’s curators. Large art museums these days must organize blockbuster exhibitions in order to get people in the door. blockbuster exhibitions are often composed of modern and contemporary artworks whose copyrights are held by the artist, the artist’s estate, or an artist’s rights association.

    1a) when a museum accepts an artwork for acquisition into the collection, they are not always given the option of receiving full copyright to works. Many museums own a piece, but the copyright belongs to the parties named above.

    2) All of the contracts signed to accept these shows also reflect the copyright status of the works. With a mixed exhibition of modern and contemporary artists, some copyright holders (I’ll call them CH for short) do not wish to allow their works to be photographed for publication or publicity purposes, or are very concerned that “illicit” images of their works will be circulated. As a result, it is up to the museum to protect the copyright wishes and adhere to the contract of the CH, lest they end up being sued by CHs for breach of contract.

    BELIEVE ME – most museums would like nothing more than to allow free photography in their galleries. It’s a hassle to prohibit it, there’s an argument which can be made that it is part of our missions to promote access to collections, and we understand how photography in galleries can benefit the institution. HOWEVER, given today’s copyright hysteria, public institutions cannot afford to challenge the CHs. Not only are the attorney fees expensive, but if we refuse to work with the CHs, you can bet that there will be empty galleries, or galleries showing only prehistoric to 19th century art.

    We’re on your side. However, I feel that you’re barking up the wrong tree. Museums have little to no control over photography in the galleries. It’s mandated by the CHs. By continuing to attack public institutions, it makes us look as if we’re bullies, when in reality, we’re just as much a victim as you are.

  11. Photography was also banned in the recent Robodock festival in Amsterdam which you posted about a few times. A truly pointless exercise – and really out of sorts with the general relaxed attitude in this city.

  12. There is a fine distinction here that people need to realize: copyrights and the rules created by these organizations are actually critically important to help artists retain at least some chance of making money off their work in the world we live in today. The ability to reproduce and sell someone else’s hard work is easier today than ever before.

    That being said, there needs to be a distinction about what exactly is protect-able. The original post had a VERY good point to make: that most Pop Art isn’t even the work of the artist showcasing it. It is mostly the appropriation of copywritten material or simply other people’s work, often times without permission.

    Participating in this form of expression is fine and dandy, but to then try and subject it to the same rules and standards that were tossed out the window to make the work in the first place is downright stupid. Don’t attack the rules: they are becoming increasingly important for modern artists (who do NOT “appropriate” other peoples’ work). Attack the idiots who think that Pop Art, the very form that ignored those rules in the first place, deserves that very protection.

  13. A couple of years ago, I went to see a Taiko drumming group that was performing at the Phoenix Art Museum, and took my digital camera with me.

    I had taken several photos of the drummers when one of the Museum staff informed me that digital photography was not allowed in the building.

    I put the camera away (of course), but later I was puzzled why he had specified “digital” photography. (He had asked me on first approach if my camera was digital.) Apparently, if I’d had a film camera, there wouldn’t have been a problem.

    At a guess, perhaps the ease with which digital images can be manipulated was behind the policy. Perhaps they were afraid, that if I had taken a digital image of an artwork and made some minor changes, I might try to claim the result as my own.

    (Yes, I know that new images derived from copyrighted works is an iffy area, per the Pop Art work mentioned above.)

    But still… I wasn’t there to photograph any of the art, just the drummers. I probably could have objected, but didn’t want to make a fuss that might have disrupted the performance.

  14. So, copyright is there to help artists get paid. Unless they’re pop artists, whom copyright would stop from making art and getting paid.

  15. “it’s like blaming the pizzeria for buying spoiled vegetables and putting them on your pizza”

    I don’t think this is a very good analogy. It implies that museums had the choice to “buy fresh vegetables” if only they had the will to do so. Well, cultural materials like art are in most cases unique, and you either get it for your show or you don’t. You can’t choose to get the hassle-free art, you take what you can get – you are stuck with the “spoiled vegetables” that the Warhol estate (or whoever) provides, because that’s what the customer wants – Warhols.

    Our cultural institutions (I speak from my experience as a librarian) are starved of money left and right, and we make do with very little to educate and promote the arts – it is very disheartening to be attacked for an issue that is initiated outside of our control and for which we have very little recourse other than not displaying the items in the first place. Critics often portray copyright issues in a very black and white manner, which they most certainly are not. Copyright issues are very much a gray murk that museums and libraries take very seriously and work with in the most pragmatic way possible. Commentary like Cory’s article makes for entertaining reading, but directs anger at the wrong party.

  16. Last week I got lectured for taking a cellphone photo out of the the window of a museum…

    Apparently, the space is copyrighted. At least that’s what the guard implied.

  17. It is the museum that presents an exhibit whose rules ironically contradict its very content and thus the museum that looks idiotic, and the museum that we criticize.

    Perhaps the museum could not present this show except by agreeing to the terms of rights holders who insist that the museum impose idiotic rules. That does seem probable, but it doesn’t mean the rules aren’t idiotic, or that the museum shouldn’t be criticized. Regardless of the reason, the museum is doing something idiotic, so they’re going to get called on it. Particularly when it is so amusingly idiotic.

    “It’s not my fault, I have to be an idiot to work with idiots” is a recurrent theme in copyright foolishness, and it’s really annoying.

  18. I recently went to an Ancient Egyptian Antiquities exhibition from the Louvre, in the Perth Art Gallery (Australia)

    Naturally there was a no photography sign (which is fair enough due to the fragility of many items) but what surprised me was their ban on drawing

    Presumably they didn’t want people drawing exhibits when they could instead purchase a photo catalogue at $40

  19. It is the museum that presents an exhibit whose rules ironically contradict its very content and thus the museum that looks idiotic, and the museum that we criticize.

    Perhaps the museum could not present this show except by agreeing to the terms of rights holders who insist that the museum impose idiotic rules. That does seem probable, but it doesn’t mean the rules aren’t idiotic, or that the museum shouldn’t be criticized. Regardless of the reason, the museum is doing something idiotic, so they’re going to get called on it. Particularly when it is so amusingly idiotic.

    I’m not entirely following here, TwoShort – how is the museum being idiotic? (ok, they are in the case of the no photos sign, but no doubt that’s the quick excuse used by the guards)

    Here’s a response I wrote to another friend of mine who had suggested the same thing:

    I understand your point that the copyright holders ask for this, but he has a point that the fact the museums are publicly funded so they should make sure the public can enjoy the art and take photos if they want. If all the museums took that stance, the copyright holders would not be able to use going to another museum as leverage.

    All copies from an original work of art can be considered a violation of copyright. There’s no clear consensus in the courts as to if that’s permitted or not. As a result, everyone is going aggro right now about “copyright violations”, even if there has been no violation (and even if the law is explicitly clear about it). Therefore, if a gallery or museum wants to protect itself, it has to err on the side of caution. Public institutions can’t afford to be test cases.

    Anyone that wants to buy the artwork or a print of it will hardly be satisfied with a photo of it. So photos will not lessen sales or encourage copyright infringement. All they might do is encourage someone to take a photo instead of buy a post card of it from the store.

    Believe me, museum professionals and those of us who want to open the restrictions of copyright fully understand that. The problem is that the lawyers and copyright holders don’t (or don’t care).

    Publicly-funded artwork still doesn’t automatically grant copyright to the owner. It’s still in the hands of the artist unless the contract clearly and explicitly states otherwise.

    What should happen is VASTLY different from the legal reality. It’s true that if every museum refused to put on shows where the copyright was unreleased, that might change things, but you’re also dealing with thousands of museums trying to deal with thousands of CHs, some of whom really don’t want to give up their rights (and trying to put together an exhibition with 20 different artists or CHs, each with a different requirement, means that shows are difficult to produce to begin with. If a museum had to negotiate a special exhibition copyright with each CH, shows would never be produced and it would be an incredible waste of public funding to even attempt to put on such shows).

    The problem with copyright is that if a copyright holder gives up any of their rights, even temporary, it’s considered gone for good (depending upon whatever court you’re in). Seriously. The law requires copyright holders to hang on their copyright as tightly as they can, lest they use total control over it.

    It’s completely retarded and maddening, but yelling at the museums who have little to no control over it isn’t going to help things. All it does is harm museums by wrongly angering their visitors.

  20. The Takashi Murakami show at MOCA has a no photography policy, but at the opening for every one person they stopped from taking photos five more just snapped away.

    Stopping photography at major art shows has crossed a social and technological Rubicon – they’re either going to have to realize that amateur photography is a goldmine of publicity and take advantage of it, or they’re going to have to body cavity searches at the door.

  21. In message #21, Isara wrote:
    The problem with copyright is that if a copyright holder gives up any of their rights, even temporary, it’s considered gone for good (depending upon whatever court you’re in). Seriously. The law requires copyright holders to hang on their copyright as tightly as they can, lest they use total control over it.

    It sounds to me as if you are confusing copyright law with trademark law. Only trademarks have to be defended to prevent their loss – copyright is secure whether you defend it or not. If you think otherwise, then please provide an example of a case where someone lost their copyright for failure to defend it against a violation.

    I agree that museums and other public institutions are often over zealous about preventing photography and anything else that might present a copyright issue. But this is due to the way the copyright wars have people living in fear of violation, worried that the copyright police might come knocking on their door. If the record companies can come after a 10-year-old child for downloading an mp3, it stands to reason that a public institution is not likely to be overlooked. The rule today is “Cover your backside.”

  22. Perhaps charging a small extra fee for a “photo pass” would actually turn this lunacy into something that benefits everyone?

    If I go to an exhibition that I find inspiring I very much would like to take something with me…and it might not be the promotional material. I would be willing to pay something extra and then get left alone.

    The extra revenue could benefit the museum and CHs, no?

    Anyway, I don’t really get how preventing me from taking photographs will benefit the artist (or protect him/her), as a common reply seems to suggest.

    Is this based on the assumption that I would buy the artwork if I can’t photograph it? That would be maybe suited to a street artist, but hardly to a major exhibition.

    So how does this actually work?

  23. The argument about whether or not museums should safeguard copyright in general, while urgent, seems secondary here. The real issue, IMO, is whether they should have addressed the dissonance created by forbidding “infringement” at a show of works that gleefully violate copyright. It could have been a teachable moment, but instead, the museum looks ridiculous.

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