Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Legal and Business Politics of Being an Artist

One question visual artists often ask me concerns their artistic production and its relation to legal and business matters. To be precise, it seems that artists are anxious about their reputations as well as the public perception of their artwork if they are deemed to be too preoccupied with legal and business issues (such as copyright and branding). The historic and fundamental question of whether artists should follow a counter-cultural and anti-commercial paradigm or a practice based on commercial systems is wrought with many false preconceived notions, and is one I will address in the coming weeks. Keep in mind that this distinction is buttressed on the notion that contemporary technological and commercial developments are not in-and-of themselves theoretical and philosophical mediums and tools that both question and facilitate a contemporary critical art practice. For now I will focus on the practical aspects of this debate and deal with the conceptual-theoretical issues later.

So why should artists start educating themselves about the legal and business issues concerning their practice? The answer is simple: personal and financial protection. In general most artists, especially those at the initial stages of their careers, will have no one looking out for their best interest. This “best interest” is complicated due to the nature of the art profession, the manner in which artists make a living (an artists livelihood), and more recently the nature of digital media (ex: internet and social sites). The majority of art schools and institutions show a high-level of skepticism when it comes to educating their art students in the legal issues affecting artistic production. This is understandable if the intent is to foster rule-breaking and subversion of the status-quo, but I do believe that a robust discussion of legal issues via theoretical and philosophical discourses would indirectly (and at times directly) inform artists on the law and its fascinating challenges. Most galleries and collectors are also primarily interested in the well-being of their own financial status and reputations. To be fair, conflict of interest issues make this a predictable structure.

However, it is ironic that many established artists (many of whom still teach at art institutions) seem adept at negotiating the legal and business terrain. Is the assumption then that only established artists with “something” to protect should self-educate in matters of commercial concern? Not at all. In fact, what if the model was flipped on its head and we established a platform where artists could become self-sufficient from the initial stages of their careers? Where they could leverage not only their artistic production (sculptures, installations, paintings, photographs, drawings, etc.), but also the subsidiary products (writing, teaching, lecturing) and intellectual property engendered by these assets. And let’s be honest, they are assets.

Artists must start asking what is in their best interest from the moment they decide that they will be professionals and not dilitantes.


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