Are We Really Headed Toward Permission-Based Art Making?

I’ve been thinking about whether or not artistic production is headed into a “permission-based” or “license-based” practice; one which would somehow undermine and increase the cost of artistic production.

Last night, while reading Rebecca Tushnet’s blog entry concerning journalism, the internet, and permission culture, a few thoughts concerning the perceived current threat by copyright owners against creative individuals (artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, etc) came to mind. This perceived threat is guised as encompassing (and coming into being as) permission-based and license-based structures which artists would have to abide by in order to produce art works and other creative projects. This fear would be true only if artists continue to give up on the challenges posed by creativity and gave in to facile and lazy intellectual hyperbole. Why then is this threat being promulgated, and by whom?

The spectral fear of this sanctioning system of artistic production comes from an ignorance of two factors necessary to the valuation of art and artists. Those two factors are creativity and originality. Creativity has become synonymous with appropriation, while art has surprisingly bought into the academic belief in the death of originality. The prevailing perception now is that “everything has been done before,” therefore there is no need to even attempt to construe one’s own idea, much less develop a significant and intelligent body of work stemming from years of research and studio-time. Under this rubric, one can only be creative by copying or arrogantly assuming that one can do better than, or make the same statement as, a previous artist in a much better “way.” There’s not much policing of this unfortunate production system, particularly because the population toward which this type of work is being targeted to is of the same mentality and of similar low-expectations. This has nothing to do with education. Professionals and intellectuals of all kinds help to reinforce this Pez dispenser mentality by encouraging the perpetuation and reproduction of popular and immediately accessible art (aka- eye candy).

This threat comes from four entities: romantic artists; law professors; art lawyers; and art education. Romantic artists are those artists which still believe in the age-old notion of the artist as ward of the state, deriving her livelihood from tax-dollars distributed by federal and state governments. Certain law professors expound theoretical ideas about creativity and copyright without having any relation to real legal and artistic practices. Certain art lawyers champion the “testing” of the fair use doctrine and the free-play by “appropriation” artists because they have a financial interest in causing dissent and conflict among creative individuals (in case some have not figured it out, law is an adversarial process that can pay quite handsomely). Art education institutions are also to blame, primarily for not analyzing tired aesthetic and theoretical models taught in undergraduate and graduate art programs. This problem is heightened when one stops to think that when the mandatory Walter Benjaminian “death of the aura” essay is distributed to young artists to read, it is distributed to them by a visual artist who at many times has no true understanding of the German language, let alone German history. Add to this the renewed reinforcement of the old division of labor between artists and non-artists, granting artists a higher status over non-artistic works produced by photographers, monument sculptors, or crafts people.

The ideological effect of lawyers on artists is not obvious. Yet, when artists read certain legal theorists and practitioners who expound a “let culture be free” mentality, a similar and erroneous thought process happens. Artists begin to parrot certain thought patterns and ideas not only unfamiliar to them but, more importantly, having little if any connection with real life and practice.

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