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.