The work of art in the age of cut and paste

Can the law keep up with the speed of digital appropriation, reproduction and distribution? And should it even try?


The question of image ownership, which forms the basis of a discussion in Frieze Talks today, is a familiar story in the history of art. From Dürer’s early 16th-century woodcuts (Dürer is said to have taken legal action against Marcantonio Raimondi around 1510 for plagiarising one of his prints) to Warhol’s 1960s silkscreen prints (Warhol was sued by several photographers for copyright infringement, although all cases were settled out of court), issues of reproduction, appropriation and copyright have frequently been encountered and exploited in the art world, examples of which can be seen throughout the fair.

In his landmark 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin identified the ability of photography and film to be endlessly reproduced as eroding the aura of the work of art and its status as a unique object. Benjamin’s text remains useful for understanding the seismic shift that art underwent during the digital revolution, with the advent of the computer and the internet, and the promise of exact and endless reproductions at the touch of two buttons: ctrl+c.

By the dawn of the internet in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the possibility arose for works to exist purely in cyberspace. Copyright laws designed to address the print medium could no longer keep pace with the rapid reproduction potential of the internet and the shift towards what Larry Lessig, the Harvard cyber-law specialist and founder of non-profit copyright licensing organisation Creative Commons, called “remix culture”, a society that encourages unfettered sampling of other people’s work.


Yet, despite a century of repeated attacks on the idea of originality by artists—ever since Duchamp signed a porcelain urinal “R. Mutt 1917” and submitted it for exhibition—the art market has so far resisted wholesale piracy. While the music industry has reeled under the weight of illegal file-sharing, works of art have not been subject to the same degree of bootlegging (peer-to-peer copying of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle” films are an atypical exception). Perhaps it is hard to imagine adequate digital substitutes for works such as Sanchayan Ghosh’s bamboo maze installed in the Frieze Sculpture Park or Gabriel Kuri’s metal ashtray sculptures dotted around Regent’s Park that invite the direct interaction of smokers. But, as Julian Stallabrass, the writer, photographer and lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, points out: “Even when you talk about digital photography, encountering a 20ft print in a gallery offers a unique experience, which you don’t get from seeing a photograph on a page or screen.” Stallabrass suggests that it is part of the art world’s agenda to keep spinning the myth of the original: “The art world is structurally opposed to mass culture,” he says. “Its core values depend on creating experiences that are not reproducible.” Kazys Varnelis, the director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, New York, and one of the panellists on today’s Frieze Talk, suggests we still haven’t learned to value new media art and so there is no demand for bootleg copies of it. “Art consumption in our culture still depends on the auratic and authentic work of art,” he says.

However piracy—or appropriation, to use the art historical term—is hardly a new phenomena. During the mid-1970s a group of artists chiefly active in photography, but also working in video and performance, emerged in America. They became known as the Pictures Generation after a 1977 exhibition featuring four of them— Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, Troy Brauntuch and Sherrie Levine. Other artists including Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince joined the group soon after. Influenced by postwar consumer culture and galvanised by French philosopher Roland Barthes’ 1967 manifesto, “The Death of the Author”, which proposed that any text—or image—was created from a tissue of quotations rather than a single voice, the Pictures Generation appropriated images from television, movies, magazines and popular music. Levine took the gesture one step further and made copies of other photographers’ work, including several of Edward Weston’s photographs of his son, Neil, which she showed at Metro Pictures in 1981. Shortly after the exhibition, however, Weston’s estate got in touch with Levine, and the series suddenly ended.


By contrast, the so-called “orphaned” images of mass culture and advertising were less fiercely defended. The cigarette maker Philip Morris, for example, never sued Prince for re-photographing several Marlboro adverts for his “Cowboy” series, although the ads were out of circulation by the time Prince started to make the works in 1980. Sam Abell, the National Geographic photographer whose shot formed the basis of Prince’s (Untitled) Cowboy, 1989 (which became the most expensive photograph ever to be sold at auction when it went for $1,248,000 at Christie’s in 2005) has said that what Prince did was “technically legal” but “obviously plagiarism”. In a perverse twist, Prince has refused requests by others to reproduce works from his “Cowboy” series.

“For today’s artists, appropriation is a given,” says Varnelis. While Levine still relied on an understanding of the original in order to distance herself from it (“her originality lies in her unoriginality,” says Stallabrass), in today’s “remix culture” there are only infinite copies. “It is no longer appropriate to talk about originals and copies,” says Stallabrass. “If I have the file for an Andreas Gursky photograph, I have the work.”

The problem faced in attempting to apply copyright on the internet is that it is assumed by many to be a platform for the free flow of information (and goods), to which copyright acts as a barrier (or at least a paywall). Internet artists have, in part, bypassed this dilemma by giving away versions of their work online, while retaining certain premium editions, which they sell to private collectors and museums. For example, Vuk Cosic, an early pioneer of internet art, allows his ASCII films (in which he rendered scenes from films such as “Psycho” and “Deep Throat” in the characters that make up computer codes) to be downloaded for free, but he sells limited edition versions on specially adapted screens, which come with an authentication certificate. Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, describes this as the “freemium” model, whereby businesses give away their product to 90% of users while charging the other 10% for a premium version. This is only possible in a digital market, says Anderson, where the cost of production and distribution tends towards zero. But there is a fundamental flaw in the model. The band Radiohead were only able to offer their album “In Rainbows” on a pay-what-you-want basis because of their existing fame and fortune, but where does this leave emerging artists? “In a sense we are moving back to a pre-enlightenment time where only a handful of artists receive global recognition and patronage,” says Varnelis.

In Britain, copyright for artistic works now extends to 70 years from the death of the artist. According to Varnelis, this needlessly benefits the establishment. “Blocking the free reproduction of older works is bad for art, bad for intellectual work, and ultimately bad for the economy,” he says. “When you look at China, there is such massive piracy there that we have to ask ourselves if copyright law isn’t helping wealth shift to them?”

Varnelis sees our current condition as symptomatic of a new phase in the organisation of society—that of network culture, born of our increasing connectivity to each other through our portable technological devices such as laptops and smart phones. Contemporary artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Spartacus Chetwynd, who will create a performance based on a live game show as part of Frieze Projects, take appropriation for granted, producing linked, or networked, artistic practices that, as curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud observes, “takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space”. Whether copyright law can adapt to such practices, or will simply become unworkable, is the question.