Sunday, April 7, 2024

Protecting the Image of a Work of Art

No, this is not about copyright law for a relatively recent work of art which usually is no longer potent in Europe or North America 50-100 years after an artist’s death depending on the jurisdiction. At that point it is in the Public Domain.

About a year ago I wrote a piece called: “Art as Promotion in Advertising”

As an example, what do you think of the Mona Lisa promoting an Aeron office chair?

There is one museum that does not approve. In an article written by Colleen Barry appearing in the Associated Press (AP) she writes about Michelangelo’s 1504 monumental sculpture of David. Curators and the Director, Cecilie Holberg, at The Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence are concerned that the political and religious significance is being diminished by, for instance, magnets sold in Florence with a focus on David’s genitalia. Not going to show the latter but here is the director gazing at her prized possession.

The Director may be offended but according to the article, she is the David against the Goliath i.e. Capitalism. In this country, we hold Freedom of Speech as the holy grail but don’t give that much reverence to a work of art or what it symbolizes.

At Holberg’s urging “the State’s attorney office in Florence has launched a series of court cases invoking Italy’s landmark cultural heritage code which protects artistic treasures from disparaging and unauthorized commercial use”. As a result, the museum has profited with hundreds of thousands of Euros in fines. I might ask if that is not a different kind of profiteering if, one might say, for a better cause.

I cannot imagine such an issue in this country. One painting that could still be under copyright has been reproduced, adapted, and imitated over and over again. It is Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom of Want”, published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and even though that was in March of that year it became a symbol of the Thanksgiving feast.

Here is Emily Shur's interpretation of Rockwell’s painting ...

Maybe a better example is the use of Emanuel Leutze’s painting from 1851 “Washington Crossing the Delaware” ...

Here is the add for Lloyd J. Harriss Pies ...

Andy Warhol’s silkscreen comment on consumerism is just one of the iconic works from Vermeer to Munch animated in the “Masterpiece“ commercial for CocaCola. The Andy Warhol Foundation has gone on record as having no objection.

Combining an advertisement with a well-known painting, of course, helps the advertiser cement the item in the public’s mind. I would argue, however, that it works the other way around as well. Would Michelangelo’s David be as famous and revered if it had not been seen far and wide and made people want to see how the original looked?

I have spent a lot of time over the years on issues of Cultural Patrimony and today we have the issue of repatriation bringing back works of art to their countries of origin. Is the current case of images of David another form of reclaiming patrimony or a bridge too far?

Museums have long tried to control images of works in their collection and the profits to be gained by gift shop sales and licensing reproductions. However,  NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs in the galleries are slowly disappearing in larger institutions in all but temporary exhibitions where lenders have not waived restrictions.

Clearly, there is a distinction between reproduction and adaptation. I have to agree that many of the commercial uses of the image are in bad taste but who is to make that decision as to whether they should be banned … the courts?

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