Photograph no evil

The miserable behaviour of Theodore Feder reminded me of one of my experiences this weekend. Aside from him possibly having no legal justification for banning Google from creating works of art in a kind of sort of style a bit like kind of sort of Miró inspired by well a bit and a tribute but not really breaching copyright at all, Feder also exemplifies a certain grasping mindset that’s at work in plenty of galleries around the world.

I went to see the Artes Mundi exhibition at the National Museum Cardiff. Among some bizarre items, ranging from the exciting and engaging (Leandro Erlich, Subodh Gupta), to the rather limp and tryhard (Sue Williams and winner Eija-Liisa Ahtila) it’s surprising that what stood out as most ridiculous was the museum’s policy of preventing photography of these enormous sculptural works. I mean, on one level I know why they did it, because I can picture exactly the sort of cock-ticking box-sucker that made the decision. I can also imagine for myself all the rationalizations—diluting the art, artist’s ownership of their work, respect for the quack quack moo moo neigh please buy our postcards whinney bark!—so feel free to keep all that to yourself.

No, what surprises me is that, in practice, it’s in any way worth the bother for the staff to hound anyone taking their own aide-memoires of the works on display. Let’s first set aside the fact that it was only on my third photograph that I was stopped, so by the bizarre rationalizations of the management I’d already utterly ruined two works of art. Let’s also pretend that cameras aren’t really getting so small these days that the staff can only stop the least well-prepared, and least candid visitors from besmirching (so disgracefully!) a sculpture of half a car topped with gold-plated bags, by stealing some of its soul with one of these new-fangled portable likeness-manufacturies. Let’s imagine, in other words, that all cameras are still really, you know, big. Finally, if we can stretch to ignoring three glaringly obvious flaws in the gallery’s policy at once, let’s also assume that a blurry, badly-exposed 1024×768-pixel lack of skill on my part can still somehow deface the original work of genius.

With all these provisos in mind (and if that’s proving hard work you might want to get a cup of tea and come back to this article), how can my taking of a photograph do anything other than help draw audiences to deserving artists? Go and Google for the Artes Mundi works: you’ll find photos out there already. And don’t give me any of that rubbish about “oh, but the artist or their agent approved release of these particular….” If I want received opinions I can buy a newspaper like everyone else. The point is that if I’m able to capture with my witless photography so much of what the work is about that I’ve cheapened the original, then it probably says something rather illuminating about the worth of said original; if, on the other hand, I just capture enough to encourage more people to visit the exhibition, then it might mean that the exhibition ends up, oh, not almost empty on a Saturday afternoon during school holidays.

Goh! Listen to me. Worrying about such trivialities as museum attendance. I’m a romantic old muddle-head, aren’t I? Such considerations are almost certainly someone else’s responsibility. Well, it must be someone’s, surely.

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