Who Owns Art?
By Claire Houston
Many years ago, I was deeply engrossed in working with pastels. I gravitated toward creating abstract imagery, but sometimes focused on wildflowers. It was mostly a self-satisfying endeavor, never really intended for public display. But, an artist friend asked me to look at my work, and I brought it out. She pored over the images. I remained silent. She began to wax poetically about what my creations said to her. I was fascinated! It was exciting to hear what these colors and patterns brought out of her! After a while, I began to give her some background about how different pieces came about. “This one, I was at an arboretum, and a very tall pine tree inspired the colors and shapes.” She said, “This is a tree?” I replied, “Essentially, yes. At least to me.” And she lost interest. Once I anchored my work in the reality that launched it, she drifted away onto other topics.
I’ve mulled that over for the many years since then. What did her loss of interest point towards? Why was my work exciting to her until I informed it with reality? All I can think is that it was exciting while it was eliciting and drawing from HER imagination. Once I filled in details with reality, it capped where her imagination could go. Once I limited her imagination with mine, it was no longer exciting for her.
Another version of my art going public happened more recently. I wrote a poem. It was also rather abstract in nature, relying on symbolism and imagery to express what I wanted to say, rather than direct words. A different friend saw so much in that poem! He just loved it, and saw so many meanings and references that, frankly, I never put in there myself. But I remembered the lesson from my pastel trees and I chose NOT to fill in what inspired and launched my poem. I just left it out there, free and open to the reader’s interpretation. Liberating the poem from my authorship led me to a question: who owns art once it is created and offered publicly?
Do I still own it even though witnesses have given it meaning way beyond my original creation? Does the reader own it? In truth, I wrote it, or put it to paper, so, there is some umbilical cord that originates with me. But, there seems to be other invisible threads of connection that move out unendingly as recipients of the art interact with the piece. In that sense, they own it too. But, further, what happens to the art when the artist changes?
Years ago, I acquired a set of oracle cards. These are beautiful images that are put onto individual cards comprising a deck of cards, and can be used in a variety of ways. Some people use them in similar ways to Tarot cards, to read or predict the future. Some use them for inspiration. For me, I just liked the positive messages and beautiful artwork of the deck. I would pull a card, and perhaps it would remind me to balance my day better with work and play. Or, it might remind me to take better care of myself regularly. It might point to the animal kingdom and suggest time in nature. All in all, they were a very positive influence in my world. Years later, something changed.
The creator of that deck did a 180 degree turn. She had her own awakening about a year ago, and decided that all of her prior work was the work of satan. She began to preach and represent a very different position; one of hatred, fear, divisiveness, and judgment. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal journey of change. However, what irked me was that she used all the money she made from people like me to create her new movement to condemn people like me. It’s a free country, and she’s entitled to do that too. But, what do I do with that deck of cards from her that I still have?
And, that brought me full circle! Who owns art once it is released out into the world? I understand her decks of cards are still for sale on Amazon, but that she has asked the publisher to cease and desist selling them. I suppose there is a legal contract that will ultimately dictate that outcome. As for me, with my deck, what shall I do? The woman who used to love angels, and created beautiful imagery of them, and encouraged people to rely on them, now spews condemnation of angels as being beings of satan. I’m trying to decide if I can look at this deck, and still dip into the beauty and inspiration that I once found there. If not, I suppose that will inform my decision as to whether to keep the cards, or dispose of them. Isn’t this what is happening all around us?
Entertainers, producers, actors, comedians, politicians, artists, authors …people who were once trusted and admired contributors to our society are being revealed to have other sides to them. Can we still love their films, their creations, their work, once the creator of that work has been revealed? Such an interesting question! The #MeToo movement, along with other such movements, have brought about a time of clarification; a time of revelation. I doubt that there is anyone who hasn’t been touched by a massive shift in identity of someone they once admired. We are all going about the business of deciding where our truths lie, where our alliances are, where our comfort levels settle…whether to keep that deck of cards, or dispose of it. These are worthy considerations, and worthwhile conversations to have, promising a clearer future culture for us all.