Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Genesis of the Next Art Movement

Many visual artists are grappling with the import of revising the discipline's historical animosity toward reproduction, including practitioners of older media with strong traditions of limiting editions as well as the most innovative new media pioneers. Brooks Jensen, editor of the fine-art photography journal Lenswork Magazine, for example, writes "I am against a predetermined limit imposed as a strategy to make the artwork scarce. I am now prepared to say that '1/250' is a bunch of bull."[1] In their book Digital Resistance, the collective known as Critical Art Ensemble cuts to the chase:

Individual cultural producers are worried about being denied compensation for their work due to unbridled duplication. This is a false anxiety. Unless an artist is transformed into an institution, there is no need to worry.[2]

One member of the collective may be approaching such celebrity status, because of international outrage over a federal anti-terrorism investigation and charges of mail and wire fraud. Steve Kurtz, a University of Buffalo professor, co-founded CAE, which engages in tactical media projects that explore precisely the nexus of technology, biology, reproduction, politics, art, and critical theory. On May 11, 2004, after Kurtz discovered his deceased wife, emergency responders called the FBI, who allegedly found in addition to the body a DNA-extraction laboratory (designed for exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) and bacteriological strains (acquired for other art projects). Despite subsequent worldwide publicity and fundraising efforts for Kurtz's legal fees, a notice on the CAE website still says that writings on the site "may be freely pirated and quoted."[3]

Copyright protections are written into Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." The original intent was a constitutional incentive for American creativity balanced with the public's interest in freedom of information. But as intellectual property has become the driving force of our economy, its largest corporate owners have successfully lobbied Congress over the years since this country's founding to extend the reach of copyright's private claims. A new generation of artists, scholars, and activists is questioning the increasingly restrictive corporate and legal limits to artistic reproduction. This legal abstraction contains the paramount challenge to creativity of our day. The stage is set for an historic conflict between artistic production and derivation, once homage, now transgression. Yet most visual artists have only the slightest understanding of the stakes, or, for that matter, what actually is and is not permissible under federal and international copyright law.

It is hard to imagine the look of art history if current intellectual property law had always reigned. Sitting in a café sketching the view, today's artist could be violating rights with every mark: the stylish logo on the menu, the striking architecture outside the window, the chic light fixtures dangling from the ceiling, the retro posters on the wall, the haute-couture handbag leaning on the bench, the designer eyeglasses resting on a forehead, maybe even the signature hairstyle—in every direction, every object and sign, all of the recognizable imagery could be intellectual property owned by a corporation or individual.

Leading intellectuals are calling for a new "cultural environmentalism" that champions our endangered creative commons and galvanizes a broad social movement to protect it.[4] A growing list of organizations and websites are dedicated to the cause, including: AdBusters (, Copyfight (, Copyleft (, Creative Commons (, Critical Art Ensemble (, Electronic Frontier Foundation (, Free Expression Policy Institute (, Freeculture (, Grey Tuesday (, IPac (, Joywar (, Lawrence Lessig (, Public Knowledge (, and Stay Free Magazine (

These efforts bring us back to the Renaissance, close to where this examination of reproduction first begins. In the middle of the Sixteenth Century, Norfolk rebels established the first English Commonwealth in Norwich, with elected delegates and governors, after uprising against enclosures that fenced off communal lands and turned them into private property for wealthy lords. For many historians, the English enclosure movement marks the birth of modern capitalism. It is also often cited as the precursor of modern environmentalism, as this anonymous poem indicates why:

The law locks up the man or womanWho steals the goose from off the commonBut leaves the greater villain looseWho steals the common from off the goose.[5]

Scholars such as Duke University law professor James Boyle, see a second enclosure movement afoot; although, this time involving "intangible commons of the mind."[6] The parallels run deep. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) argues in Utopia (1516) that the first enclosures were not only unjust, but the cause of economic inequality, crime, and social dislocation. But More's utopia is far from the vision of a gift economy promoted by artists and internet cyberpunks alike. In his Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532), More would rather consign English translations of his own Utopia to flames than allow a broader readership (his original was in Latin). He was one of the most prominent advocates for burning William Tyndale at the stake, and for burning all of the popular preacher's English translations of the bible. Neither More nor Martin Luther supported peasant rebellion to such an extent as to challenge authority, private property, or the privilege of knowledge so radically.[7]

Like ecology, creativity is robust yet fragile. Unlike land, however, imagination is an infinite resource. That does not mean its products should always be free; if they were, the creative economy would not exist, and no artist, scientist or other creative professional could earn a living. But it does mean every artist and every person whom the arts have ever touched needs to influence the dialogue that sets the boundary between public and private domains: that is, who can reproduce what, how, when, where, and why. Otherwise, and without doubt, corporate lobbyists will continue to restrict the creative commons that in the past has offered everyone the raw materials for artistic production. Understanding the profound connection of reproduction to freedom and survival—as individuals, citizens and artists—provides a basis for a new art movement with the breadth and strength to move the arts forward. The terrain for exploration is as old as the first stenciled hand prints and as culturally rich as humanity itself. Protecting the diversity and fertility of these soils, and bringing its harvest to a broader public is the calling of the arts in the Twenty-First Century.

[1] Jensen 2001.
[2] Critical Art Ensemble nd.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Boyle 1997; Boynton 2005.
[5] Boyle 2003, p. 33.
[6] Ibid, p. 37
[7] Baker 1996.

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