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Copyrightphobia in the Museum

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by Nick Briz

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself.”

—Lewis Hyde


In these technological times, “copying” has become a bad word. The free copying and sharing of files, works, and ideas, such as Peer-to-peer and torrents, have become stigmatized by those who have attempted to control knowledge and culture (I’m speaking here of intellectual property regimes: Disney, Viacom, Monsanto, the RIAA, pharmaceuticals, etc. for whom intellectual property has become a primary asset). Art museums, however, have always supported copying, so that for centuries artists have been setting up their easels in museums to learn from the masters by directly copying their works, finding within them inspiration and a special kind of insight into the creative process that can only be acquired by copying.

Yet, it would seem that copyright-phobia has found its way into the museum. A recent article in the San Fransisco Chronicle explains that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are no longer allowing patrons to sketch the works they have on loan from the Musée D’Orsay (who, for the record, do allow freehand sketching of their collection). The author of the article saw guards stop two visitors from sketching the works with pencil in their tiny notebooks. This sounds preposterous (and it is). However, FAMSF does allow sketching and photography of works in their private collection, suggesting that this is a case of copyright-phobia—a defensive move in order to ensure they remain safely within the boundaries of intellectual property law. Never mind the fact that these works are by artists, such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne, who have long since passed and are no longer capable of creating new works. Not forgetting, of course, the reason for the invention of copyright—to create incentive for (living) artists to keep producing things.

The article explains that the Fine Arts Museums of San Fransisco are the exception; most museums (naturally) still allow artists to sketch the works they encounter in their galleries. The end of the article does mention a couple other museums who do prohibit sketching and photographing works on loan, among them the Art Institute of Chicago. So leave your pencils and sketchbooks in class before crossing the street.

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