The Value of Art vs Writing

A couple of years ago I went to see a Damien Hirst exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I was was really taken by The Last Supper series of screen prints which showed images of pharmaceutical style packaging with the names of the medicine replaced by names of food. I would have loved a print of Sausages, but unfortunately for me, Hirst does not allow prints of his work to be made.

I totally understand why he might feel that his artwork would be devalued by me hanging a photo of it on my kitchen wall. What’s interesting to me is that as far as an author is concerned, the more copies of their work that are made and bought, the better.

Is it a question of accessibility? One artwork in a gallery will be seen by thousands of people; a book will only be read by thousands of people if they can physically get their hands on a copy. But then, what if an artwork is bought by a private collector and only a select few people are able to see it? Does the artist care as long as s/he gets paid for it? There is a cover price on a book so the only way for an author to make a living from their work is to shift a lot of units.

This preoccupation with the value of art and writing was triggered by a recent trip to gallery Rhubaba, where there is currently an exhibition by Hannah James. Three of the works are slide projections which feature pots. According to the gallery directors, James found one of the images in a cupboard in a school where she teaches art. It shows two pots, most probably made by school pupils, side by side against a blue background. So she didn’t take the photo and she didn’t make the pots, but James is still recognised as the author of the work because she came up with the idea of projecting it onto a wall to a backing track of a purring cat (the exhibition is called Pots Purr).

Can you imagine if I found a short story written by someone else and posted it on my blog? It wouldn’t be called art, it would be called plagiarism. So the value of art and writing seems to be further complicated by the idea of ownership. The pots made by the pupils are valuable only to their parents. The photo of the pots lay forgotten in a cupboard for who knows how many years. The projection of the photo of the pots, as envisioned by Hannah James, is a work of art.

I don’t think any writer would thank you for reproducing their work uncredited, but I suspect that if a little kid were to visit a gallery and see their art project illuminating a wall, they might be very happy indeed.

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10 thoughts on “The Value of Art vs Writing

  1. Interesting! I personally don’t think Hirst’s artwork would be devalued by people hanging copies of it on their walls. It shows he’s made an impact on them.

    • Yes, you’re right. I wanted a print of that painting because it made an impact on me, and it would be nice if visitor’s to my home saw it and it made an impact on them too. But I can’t imagine that any artist dreams one day of their work being on a poster in someone’s kitchen. Although, of course for it to be made into a poster in the first place, it first has to have been exhibited in a gallery. It’s not like there is a “direct to poster” route for artists in the way there’s a “direct to dvd” route for films.

    • “Direct to poster”! 🙂

      As snobbish as it is, I’d be lying if I said I don’t think commercialism can devalue a work. Are the reputations of Monet or Warhol damaged by the ubiquity of their works on prints and cards? I’d say yes… at least in the short term.

      For a worst case example of how merchandising can run rampant, look at Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Nobody even calls it Peanuts anymore… it’s “Snoopy” and it’s all about a crazy dog, apparently. I can’t help but think that Bill Watterson took this on board when vetoing all that lucrative Calvin & Hobbes merchandise.

    • Yes, it was an essay by Bill Waterson that first made me aware of the idea of art being devalued by merchandise. It’s worth noting thought that just because Waterson has not approved any Calvin & Hobbes merchandise, you can still buy t-shirts off a stall in Malaysia if you wanted to. Waterson is just not making any money from the sales.

  2. This is very interesting. Perhaps an artist’s mind differs from that of a writer’s. Although now that I think of it people have used printed words under “author unknown.” One example I can think of was the poem “Footprints.” A lot of money was made by reprinting it, but if memory serves me the author who wrote it was eventually credited for having composed it.

    • Interesting point, Laura. In most cases when you find words that have been reprinted uncredited, they are poems or folk songs or traditional tales that have been passed on by word of mouth for centuries before someone has written them down. It would be almost impossible to work out who they originated from and chances are, they would have deviated from the original form over the years anyway.

      I’ve looked up the story about the Footprints poem. It seems that the author was still alive when her poem became widely distributed and was able to prove that she had written in because she had a handwritten copy dated 1939. I guess it was in her interests to claim her work as her own.

      Think about someone who finds an unsigned painting in their attic. There might be a lot of work put into identifying who painted it. In this case it is in the interest of the person who owns the painting to find out who the artist was, because it might be valuable.

      I guess the value of writing is in the words themselves, which are intangible, so making copies doesn’t dilute their worth. The value of a painting or other artwork is in the unique way the artist has manipulated his or her materials. It’s something physical that can’t be replicated in a photograph.

    • There’s a lot of legal discussions going on just now about how to deal with Orphaned Works (works where the copyright holder is unknown and uncontactable). As it stands, you’re not supposed to use something without permission from the copyright holder. If you can’t find them to contact them, then you can’t use it.

      Obviously in the internet age, the issue of Orphaned Works is getting worse. There was a horrible law drafted in America where any work uploaded to the internet would have to be registered (for a fee) with a media library or else be considered public domain. Fortunately there was a big outcry and it’s been quietly thrown out… for now.

    • Thank goodness that law didn’t go through. Most of the blogs I follow are by writers who want to promote and share their work. They couldn’t do that if there was a law that said people could steal that work unless they paid a registration fee with a media library.

  3. This is a very interesting article, gives me lots to think about! I think a lot of artists like to have prints of their work available, maybe it depends on the type of art (2 dimensional paintings make greast postcards or prints but 3D art less so perhaps).

    • Good point. A postcard of a 3D artwork is definitely not a good substitute for being able to walk round a piece and see it from different angles.

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