Saturday, October 30, 2010

Brian Sherwin's thoughts on strong copyright for visual artists

Brian Sherwin's thoughts on strong copyright for visual artists:

I’ve long been a strong supporter of copyright-- specifically for visual artists. The key issue today is that art can be a business now more than ever-- which is why copyright is important. My experience dictates that artists who are against copyright either don’t make money from their artwork-- so the infringement is not really an issue for them per se-- or they rely on using the work of others freely in order to create-- and profit from-- there own artwork.

The artist Shepard Fairey always comes up in conversations about copyright. After all, he is a prime example of an artist who would have a strong advantage if copyright protection as we know it were derailed. That said, Fairey is also an example of an artist who scoffs at copyright protection until his own artwork is put to the legal challenge. Fairey whines around about how copyright should not be so strict, but heaven forbid anyone do legitimate appropriation involving his widely known pieces.

To date-- Shepard Fairey has sent three cease and desist orders to three artists that I know of-- and as far as I could tell their works were perfect examples of parody based on current copyright law. That is the problem with artists who claim that images in general should be open to use by all-- they normally lack the courage of their own convictions when their artwork is used legitimately. So no, I don’t think Shepard Fairey is fighting some assumed good-fight for appropriation-- I‘m referring to his legal squabble with the Associated Press. He is fighting for his bank account-- he is fighting to use YOUR art for HIS profit.

I’m not against appropriation-- but I’m also for the laws that protect ALL artists. Copyright laws protect visual artists no matter how successful they are. However, we seem to have this idea floating around that it is OK for art stars and world famous artists to use whatever they want whenever they want. I suppose it is part of the cult of celebrity-- or petty excuses of entitlement that are often argued for those who have fame. Yet when an emerging artist parodies the work of a famous artist the emerging artist is often called a parasite or untalented.

Shepard Fairey has used those words-- parasite, leech, untalented… etc.-- to describe artists who have done legitimate parodies of his art. So how can he support hard-line appropriation and the weakening of copyright while at the same time threatening artists who use his artwork within the realm of legitimate appropriation based on current copyright law? His opinions on the matter are hypocritical at best. Anyone who can see past the cloud of celebrity will agree-- obviously fans of his art won’t.

More artists are making a living-- or at least enough to fund their practice-- than ever before. That is why it boggles my mind that some individuals strive to weaken copyright. As for Shepard Fairey, anyone who knows me-- or is aware of my writing-- knows that I’ve been critical of him for years. That said, know that I’ve been fair-- I’ve offered him a few chances to clear the air. Unfortunately, the artist who says to question everything does not want to answer my questions.

Another thought-- if copyright laws are weakened to the point that anything goes it would destroy art as we know it. I'd bet money that Walmart or some other huge chain would start stocking knock-offs from painting factories in China in mass if copyright were weakened to the point that certain individuals desire. They don’t know what they are asking for! Would people care about art and artists if they can easily buy the same painting-- or something very close to the same-- for $19.95 at a retail store. No. It would be like flooding the market with fakes and having no clue which pieces are 'real'. The concept of art as investment-- or art having value in general-- would be gone.

The fact remains that if copyright laws are weakened to the point of being nothing more than a paper tiger many artists would suffer. Some people may want-- and I include Shepard Fairey in that list-- to 'spread the art'. I on the other hand would rather see artists actually have a chance to earn potential income from the passion they have dedicated themselves to. Weakened copyright would only serve to help artists, like Shepard Fairey, who are already embraced by the mainstream-- and as mentioned above I think even those artists would suffer in the end if copyright becomes a mute point legally.

The idea that art should be free is a romantic view at best. If art should be free than movies, music, and novels should be free as well-- and we know what happens if someone 'pirates' those examples in mass. If art should be free-- then I suppose concerts should be free, plays should be free, anything creative that you can think of should be free. Obviously that would not work-- unless we lived in a society where everything is free. I don't see that happening anytime soon-- so why should it be that way for art? Why on Earth do people even suggest that!

Copyright protection is so important for visual artists-- it makes sure that your artwork is not free no matter if you are a Sunday painter or a world famous artist. True, copyright protects big corporations and so on-- but it also protects YOU. It protects your family and your collectors as well. So please, please, please don’t fall for the rebellious rhetoric concerning copyright being a tool of the ’The Man’ or whatever. If copyright did not exist for visual artists it would be difficult to establish any sense of legacy in the world we know today. That is why I'll fight tooth and nail for strong copyright. I don’t really care who I anger in the process-- and I can promise you that I’ve angered more than a few.

In closing, there are so many contradictions when it comes to people-- specifically professionals in the art market-- who view copyright as an obstacle for artists and creation. There are galleries that obviously don't mind if an artist crosses copyright lines, so to speak. That said, I'd bet that most of those art dealers would have a fit if someone came into their gallery taking pictures of their represented artists work-- especially if they knew it was for an art project. My point-- consider the source when you read about someone who strives to weaken copyright. I see beyond what is said and observe the motives of the individual. That is why I will continue to support strong copyright protection for visual artists.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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