Monday, June 5, 2023

Are Museums Hampered By Copyright Laws?

Over a beer last week, a friend commented to me that law is currently the hot and sexy topic in the so-called “art world.” I chuckled, mentioning that if true, it would be lamentable if law was taken in a simplistic form, meaning in a symbolic and representational manner more so than as a practice and medium: where art engages law to test itself, law, or both.

Enter the Van Abbemuseum. In one of its current exhibitions, In-Between Minimalisms; Free Sol Lewitt, the museum asks:

What obstacles do museums encounter in the process of collecting cultural heritage? What is the nature of the tension that ensues from the proliferation of mass information sharing (the Internet) on the one hand and copyright law, which imposes limits on information sharing, on the other? What does it mean for a museum to ‘possess’ a work of art. What is actually owned?

Photo Peter Cox.

Photo Peter Cox.

In their attempt to answer these questions, the Museum invited the Danish art-trio SUPERFLEX to create an art project addressing these issues. SUPERFLEX responded with the exhibition, In-between Minimalisms, and a new work, Free Sol Lewitt. This is where it gets a bit interesting. In the Free Sol Lewitt project, SUPERFLEX has set up a workshop where a couple of workmen work daily on reproducing LeWitt’s Untitled (Wall Structure). In the workshop, “workmen cut the aluminium, weld it into a lattice structure, sand this form and then paint it white. The copies lie stacked in a corner awaiting their new destinations. The copies will be distributed free-of-charge to the public through a random system which visitors to the museum can sign-up for. The installation makes the production, presentation and distribution of an art work simultaneously visible.”

According to its website, the Museum believes it that its duty to present and disseminate cultural property is being hampered by copyright. “Yet, copyright laws can potentially prevent the museum from being able to fulfil its task. What should the museum’s position be in the current information age where the capacity to share and exchange information is restricted by the economic interests protected by copyright?” I’m not sure museums are being hampered by copyright or other laws, unless of course if by “hampering” they mean that with the growing importance of copyright laws (or laws as they apply to museums in general) museums cannot disseminate images of copyrighted works nilly-willy. Keep in mind also that they’ve never been able to disseminate the actual works at their leisure.

Unfortunately, in this project, I’m left with a bit of bewilderment at what exactly is supposed to be under critique or analysis. It isn’t law. And if it is, it’s too simple. We all know these Lewitt reproductions aren’t Lewitts; they’re not accompanied by a certificate of authenticity. What we have is a fake Prada bag produced in an art museum. In that light, it does raise issues of the current state of global piracy and a consumer’s acquiescence in that system. That’s about it. Does it critique hampered dissemination? Not really. I can still view hundreds of Sol Lewitt art projects online, in art history books, in monographs, and heck, right up the Hudson Valley at Dia:Beacon.

It’s a shame that a robust doctrine of law such as copyright is not taken more seriously. Perhaps soon. Stay tuned!


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