Iconic ownership is not supposed to be cultural appropriation
There have been current and recent events bringing together controversial topics about culture in our world. Record-breaking art sales prices have forced a collective outpouring of controversy – to say the least – about art and wealth disparity. Popular culture is roiled by squabbles over cultural appropriation, when many used to feel that cross-cultural mirroring was a sign of approval and even solidarity. The use – misappropriation? – of words, phrases and images from an original creation to another use (usually commercial) keeps us on our guard about IPR violations which often get in court and very messy with astonishing rapidity. Lastly, the matter of music which on the one hand seems freely available to listen to – just take a walk through a shopping mall or walking street in many areas – but expensive to listen to when you want to do it, all because the writer, artist and recording releasing entity rely on sales of the music to the likes of me and you for their sustenance. All of this places stress on art, as both an expression of aesthetic, social, emotional culture and a commercial pursuit.
It may be that ownership of the piece substantially equates with control of the representation of the thing, such as the ownership of a building might place one in the position of controlling the use of photographs of that building, especially for commercial use. But it is pretty well established that ownership of a painting does not entitle one to protect or benefit from the copyright of that painting, just as ownership of a recording does not let me charge money for the plying of the recording, nor the underlying song (words or music). The stark fact that a musical recording is a reproduction, while the painting is an original, and that the difference is huge, has neither been lost on the owners nor the Courts, but the legal situation remains similar despite the clear distinction in nature of the works at issue.
Does all this mean that the owner can, just because of holding a piece, manage to get it represented in any way they may choose? On the other hand, can they reach out and limit/prevent others from doing so? What if the new owner of Salvador Mundi wanted to prevent someone from making a Christmas Card using the image? Has it been in the public domain long enough for anyone who chooses to do it, can do just that?
The space between culture and commerce bears exploration, to say the least. There are those who stand on the position that culture is the property of us all, and should not be commercialized. Where is the ability to tend to one’s necessities, if one is an artist, when the world aligns itself with such a position? Why is it that the people who are most appreciated for expressing the emotions and aesthetic of a day somehow expected to divine their sustenance from out of thin air, whilst the ones who add nought but the carriage of such products of our valued expression entitled, as if by the highest rights of man under god, to their honest wages, rightfully due and owing?
The popularity of an artist, the very public acceptance which links their artistic production with society in that thing which we call culture, also leads to their works being copied without giving them payment. What is wrong with people that then acknowledge, nay advocate, the admiration of these works, but consciously decide that they do not want to pay for them? How would they feel if the same way of acting were directed at them? Hey, I like your work, which is exactly why I don’t want to pay you for it. This happened very famously to another Salvador – Dali was the most pirated artist of the 1980s, which was during his lifetime, and all of the upset and disturbance must surely have diminished his endurance and life’s blood. Many of us refused to purchase any of his works during that period, due to distaste for supporting pirates, but that surely hurt his legitimate sales as well.
I’ve seen cultural organizations arrange for large amounts of space in which to hold functions, only to dictate that there be no commercial activity during the functions. I have seen the same cultural organizations shut down and leave the spaces which they had occupied, and can only guess that the aversion to commercial activity linked with the inability to sustain a physical presence in front of the people they wanted to reach. Commercial activity in art is not the same as selling candy bars or pounds of apples, but it is just as necessary for the people engaged in that line of business.
Does not the disparity between these entitlements and duties strike one as uncomfortable, to say the least? Similarly, all those between the adept and devoted people who channel society’s yearnings, expressions and desires, and the ones who pick the grains from the fields which ultimately, as breads, cakes and noodles, ultimately feed them, to those who dig the holes from whence their water springs, why is it the artist who is forced to suffer penury whilst those others enjoy their stable comforts? The grotesque inequity astonishes me, to say the least. When I hear someone crowing about having downloaded a free copy of their favorite artist’s music, or a book, I boil inside, though the current fashion suppresses me into mute acknowledgement, I will never accept such behaviour.
So where is it that cultural appropriation comes in? We – the world – have just witnessed a most outrageous display of financial power – on the level of national and economic power, in the space of art and culture, which one could ever expect to apprehend. Does that mean the culture expressed and contained in the image – nay the physical piece – has been transferred? Does this piece even embody such powers, or has the fact that it’s gone missing for long periods, and is of disputed origin (master’s hand or workshop?), along with acknowledged alteration due to restorations of dubious quality and skill all conspired to dissipate the cultural power of this piece, reducing it to a mere oddment, maybe a curiosity of fetishism?
There have been skirmishes over the imagery of the Eiffel Tower, and the Campbell’s Soup can label, and even the Flatiron Building in New York City. Why haven’t there been controversies and lawsuits over Mount Everest/Jumaluma and the Golden Gate Bridge? Will someone launch a lawsuit, or a law, to protect the Western man’s suit, the African Dashiki, or the Chinese Tai Chi Gi? Can the descendants of Gene Vincent prevent one from wearing a pompadour D.A., can the family of Bob Marley prevent one from wearing dreads? Could Miles Davis ever break free from the fame and fortune made available to him resulting from the White middle-class fans he had gained (and was originally from), with his cool hipster positioning, (and only his psychedelic electric fusion experimentation could shake them loose) but he soldiered on with his audience, regardless of the fact that most of them kept him preserved in the amber of his early ’60’s ‘classics’. How much of the cross-currency is wrongful ‘cultural appropriation”, and how much is natural human exploration, acceptance and solidarity between people, regardless of origin and location? It may be suggested that the flow of ideas and styles in all directions, between peoples, is the most positive force in the human realm of existence.
Though it may be the case that some “beyond – one-percenter” has sequestered the putatively-Leonardo Jesus away in some palace or dungeon in a faraway place, never to see the light of day again, the culture of the world has evolved without it for hundreds of years, and can probably do just fine if it only again resurfaces in another hundred years or so. We will benefit by our positive interaction, and those artifacts which are kept in secret are also outside the cultural experience of anybody other than the keepers, just as the unacceptable works remain outside our sight and sense.