Image as Commodity

This weekend I visited two galleries: Leeds Art Gallery, and The Hepworth, in Wakefield. At Leeds Art Gallery, I saw an exhibition entitled Construction and its Shadow, which included work by Jefferey Steele (not the American country singer). I found the exhibition interesting, and I enjoyed looking at the pieces. I had a camera with me, so I decided to take a couple of photographs of the art; I turned the flash off to avoid damaging any light-sensitive surfaces.

After I had taken a number of pictures, a gallery attendant noticed what I was doing and politely asked me to put the camera away. I quickly complied, blushing with embarrassment, but wondered why photography in museums and galleries is frowned upon so much.

O.K., I know that galleries have to abide by certain copyright laws because they don’t own the copyright of the majority of the art that they display; they have to protect themselves from legal action. An artist may want to restrict reproductions so that they can sell images of their work. But, isn’t the concept of owning an image rather strange? For me, it calls into question the purpose of art. If art is created in order to communicate ideas; to connect people; to encourage empathy, understanding, and enlightenment; and to bring about changes in society, then why would an artist get possessive about their work to the extent that only they have the power to dictate who can look at it?

Once art has been created, it is separate from the artist; the artist cannot control how her/his art is going to affect its audience. If an artist tries to control the impact of their art, they seem like a pushy parent – overshadowing the art and limiting interpretations of it; they only succeed in clipping its wings. If I were an artist, I think I’d want my work to reach as many people as possible. I’d like to think I’d let people make up their own minds about the art’s message. I am a great believer in reader response theory – I feel that visual art, like literature, is dead until a viewer, or reader, interacts with it. Each time a transaction takes place between reader and text, the text is created anew.

Modern technology allows images to be duplicated and distributed in seconds. Digital cameras and the Internet enable us to capture snapshots of our daily lives and share them almost instantaneously with people all over the world; images can “go viral”, having a huge impact on a vast audience at super speed. What better platform for art? I don’t deny that viewing art in a gallery is a very different experience to looking at a photo of it; net surfing is a poor substitute for gallery going. However, once I’ve had that initial, transient, face-to-face transaction with the art, I’d like to be able to keep a physical image of it, a memento, to be able to contemplate it at length in places other than the gallery (maybe at the sink whilst washing up, on a park bench, or during a train journey).

I believe that images of art, like art itself, have become commodified. Copyright is a question of capital. Artists and galleries make mega bucks by selling art-related merchandise online and in gift shops, by convincing people that they need Hockney handbags, Kandinsky coasters, and Monet mugs. I have fallen victim in the past: I confess, I am the proud owner of a Warhol bag and a William Morris flask.

Are we sometimes dissuaded from photographing art in galleries because, in a capitalist society, art is no longer about communicating and connecting: images = money?

In retrospect, as a sixth former studying A Level Art, when I bought my Campbell Soup bag, I wanted to be seen as an Art Student, to wear the uniform of creativity, to be associated with Artiness, and, as a result, I decked out my pencil case and my person in over-priced, arty tat from gallery shops, just as many art students and “eccentric”, middle-class housewives continue to do today. How sad that art has become another brand.

During my visit to the recently opened Hepworth, I did not attempt to take pictures of the art. Instead, I took photos from its enormous and numerous windows of the scenery outside. Perhaps I will copyright these images and create my own range of soft-furnishings featuring them, entitled ‘Alternative Perspectives on Hepworth’ (joke).

My partner’s mother raised an interesting question: how come you can take as many pictures as you like of art when it’s outside? Does anyone know the answer to this?


4 responses to “Image as Commodity

  1. Pingback: Two Picasso Shows « patternsthatconnect

  2. Being so far from these wonderful galleries means that blogs have been my visits through others eyes. I never even knew that the Hepworth Gallery existed until moments ago. Thank you for the photos. Cheers Sue

  3. Interesting post. My friend, who does visuals for my poems on occasion, and I have had variations of this discussion many times. Neither of us feel any protective sense of “ownership” over our work and want it to belong to everyone. Do I want someone to put their name on it and publish it as their own? No, but they don’t need to pay a fee to view it and can download a copy if they wish. I also LOVE to have other artists reinterpret my work or incorporate it into their own, as does she. (Part of it is, I admit, that I am too lazy to do the work that “protecting” an image or a poem requires).And honestly, sometimes a work means nothing to me – perhaps I just enjoy certain words or images and I want to see what others find.

  4. Tim GARRATT

    I do struggle with the photography rules as you know! If I’m cynical it is about re-selling ‘authorised’ images. But, the Galleries can make the rules!

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