Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The artist’s digital dilemma

In the age of the smartphone, who has ownership of art?

Lucy Farmer | October 24th 2014

At Frieze art fair last week, I spent an afternoon browsing the galleries and snapping photos of artworks on my iPhone. I didn’t think twice about it, and nobody stopped me. Some of the photos I shared on social media, some I showed to friends, and I’ll keep them all for reference. But this prompts a few questions: in our digital age, who has ownership of art? Is it OK to share images of art, or is this an act of piracy against which artists should be protected, as musicians and film-makers are? And how can you police it anyway?

This was the sticky subject of a Frieze-week debate hosted by Sculpture in the City, an organisation that brightens up London’s corporate Square Mile with works of contemporary art. On the panel were a sculptor, a museum director, an arts journalist, an expert in art law and the head of an artists’ copyright society. I was anticipating “artistic differences”.

First question: should people be allowed to take photos of artworks in public spaces and in institutions? A unanimous yes. “A ban on photos is pointless and counterproductive,” said Caro Howell, director of the Foundling Museum. Even the Metropolitan Museum in New York and London’s National Gallery now allow photography of their permanent collections. But what about art-lovers who argue you should look with your eyes instead of through a lens? “The middle classes don’t like their sanctuary being sullied by selfies,” said Igor Toronyi-Lalic, the arts editor of the Spectator. “But that seems Luddite and snobbish.” Howell agreed, but more politely: “There’s no right or wrong way of looking. The interesting thing is how a person continues that process of engagement. And digital media might encourage others to visit.”

So if photos are allowed, what does that mean for artists’ rights? The sculptor Julian Wild (who is showing two works in Sculpture in the City) gave a nonchalant shrug. “[Photos] are a natural evolution. And as an artist, you want more people to see your work.” A refreshing view—the artist doesn’t get any royalties but they do get exposure. The problem is when the works aren’t credited. “Everyone assumes they have ownership of images online,” said Karen Sanig, the head of art law at the solicitors Mishcon de Reya—especially the generation born into a digital world where images can be disseminated by the click of a button, and accessed just as easily. But Mark Waugh from DACS had more faith. His organisation campaigns for artists' rights, and makes sure that magazines like Intelligent Life pay for every picture of art they publish. As for members of the public, he thinks they have a sense of fairness, care about artists’ rights and understand that images of art have value. Still no royalties for the artists, though, while the social-media behemoths rake it in when people share on their platforms.

Things got livelier over the problem of art that gets appropriated and defaced. Sometimes appropriation is OK, said Waugh, and sometimes it’s quite obviously not. His example was Antony Gormley, who didn’t mind his “Angel of the North” being dressed up in a Newcastle United football shirt (a bit of local fun), but did mind when a supermarket beamed an image of a baguette across its wings (blatant advertising). And if you’re considering appropriating a work of art yourself? Sanig’s lawyerly advice is, “Take the risk.” If you sample Mickey Mouse’s ears in your montage, Disney isn’t going to bother suing you. On the flipside, Waugh said, if you’re an artist whose work has been used, the question is always whether it’s commercially viable to police it.

Defacement, though, takes the question of ownership and sticks a flag in it. “Artists should get over it,” said Toronyi-Lalic. “The public are tastemakers; they only ruin works that are bad.” This was both provocative nonsense and historically untrue. Nevertheless, all eyes turned to Wild. He smiled and said, “Well none of my sculptures have been defaced so far, so I guess they must be okay.”

I left feeling vindicated, rather than guilty, that I’d photographed and shared my favourite artworks at Frieze. (I hadn’t broken any rules and each image was credited.) In the insatiable online universe it seems impossible to police sharing, so the responsibilities lie with the sharers—no plagiarising, defacing or profiteering, and always giving credit where credit’s due. Artists have to get paid, but they are also in the business of creating things to make people feel, think and share. And if digital media gets more people engaging with art, then that’s exciting. Carry on snapping.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.