CONTENT - Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future
Cory Doctorow (2008-09-15)

22. Warhol is Turning in His Grave

(Originally published in The Guardian, November 13, 2007)

The excellent little programmer book for the National Portrait Gallery's current show POPARTPORTRAITS has a lot to say about the pictures hung on the walls, about the diverse source material the artists drew from in producing their provocative works. They cut up magazines, copied comic books, drew in trademarked cartoon characters like Minnie Mouse, reproduced covers from Time magazine, made ironic use of the cartoon figure of Charles Atlas, painted over an iconic photo of James Dean or Elvis Presley -- and that's just in the first room of seven.

The programmer book describes the aesthetic experience of seeing these repositioned icons of culture high and low, the art created by the celebrated artists Poons, Rauschenberg, Warhol, et al by nicking the work of others, without permission, and remaking it to make statements and evoke emotions never countenanced by the original creators.

However, the book does not say a word about copyright. Can you blame it? A treatise on the way that copyright and trademark were -- had to be -- trammeled to make these works could fill volumes. Reading the programmer book, you have to assume that the curators' only message about copyright is that where free expression is concerned, the rights of the creators of the original source material appropriated by the pop school take a back seat.

There is, however, another message about copyright in the National Portrait Gallery: it's implicit in the “No Photography” signs prominently placed throughout the halls, including one right by the entrance of the POPARTPORTRAITS exhibition. This isn't intended to protect the works from the depredations of camera-flashes (it would read NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY if this were so). No, the ban on pictures is in place to safeguard the copyright in the works hung on the walls -- a fact that every gallery staffer I spoke to instantly affirmed when I asked about the policy.

Indeed, it seems that every square centimeter of the Portrait Gallery is under some form of copyright. I wasn't even allowed to photograph the NO PHOTOGRAPHS sign. A museum staffer explained that she'd been told that the typography and layout of the NO PHOTOGRAPHS legend was, itself, copyrighted. If this is true, then presumably, the same rules would prevent anyone from taking any pictures in any public place -- unless you could somehow contrive to get a shot of Leicester Square without any writing, logos, architectural facades, or images in it. I doubt Warhol could have done it.

What's the message of the show, then? Is it a celebration of remix culture, reveling in the endless possibilities opened up by appropriating and re-using without permission?

Or is it the epitaph on the tombstone of the sweet days before the UN's chartering of the World Intellectual Property Organization and the ensuing mania for turning everything that can be sensed and recorded into someone's property?

Does this show -- paid for with public money, with some works that are themselves owned by public institutions -- seek to inspire us to become 21st century pops, armed with cameraphones, websites and mixers, or is it supposed to inform us that our chance has passed, and we'd best settle for a life as information serfs, who can't even make free use of what our eyes see, our ears hear, of the streets we walk upon?

Perhaps, just perhaps, it's actually a Dadaist show masquerading as a pop art show! Perhaps the point is to titillate us with the delicious irony of celebrating copyright infringement while simultaneously taking the view that even the NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign is a form of property, not to be reproduced without the permission that can never be had.

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License: This entire work (with the exception of the introduction by John Perry Barlow) is copyright 2008 by Cory Doctorow and released under the terms of a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/). Some Rights Reserved.
The introduction is copyright 2008 by John Perry Barlow and released under the terms of a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/). Some Rights Reserved.


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