Well, yet again we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Australian art prize pickle. Not since Bill Dobell caused a fracas with his Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943 (is it a portrait, or is it a caricature?) have so many newspaper column inches been dedicated to a debate about what, exactly, constitutes ‘art’. For your consideration – on the top we have Sam Leach’s winning entry, Proposal for landscaped cosmos. Below that, Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, Boatmen moored on a lake shore.
Anyone who knows anything about Leach’s theory and method would not be at all surprised by the nature of his Wynne entry. A cursory glance at his website makes it very clear that he is appropriating (for that, read ‘borrowing’) imagery directly from the great Dutch painters of the 17th century to pass comment on the nature of affluence and, to a lesser degree, the close relationship between the workings of the art market today, and the boom in the art trade that took place in the Netherlands during the 1600s, coinciding with the speculative lunacy of tulipmania where single tulip bulbs were selling for the price of a house. Sound familiar? Leach isn’t the first person to draw parallels between our very own recently deflated stock market bubble and the irrational exuberance of the 17th century Dutch economy. Which also ended with a crash, by the way.
But there are a couple of questions that I’d like to throw into the ring. One is the question of copyright – clearly not an issue in this instance as Pynacker is long-deceased and so not in a very viable position to prosecute Mr. Leach. But, on a broader level, it is an issue worthy of consideration. Reproduction of a work of art or literature is permitted under law if it can be shown to be subject to ‘fair use’ – so, for example, for the purpose of research, criticism and reporting news. Seems pretty straight forward. But, what if an artist takes an image made by another artist, alters it (however imperceptibly), presents it as his or her own, and accrues financial gain from said activity? Although market commentator, Michael Reid, has said in an article in The Age today that “artistic licence lets you cross any copyright boundaries. It’s open slather”, the same is certainly not true for other art forms. The case in the music industry is very clear, as witnessed by the enormous payments made to musicians when another artist ‘samples’ their work in their own – most notable recent-ish example (showing my age, now) was when The Verve was forced to pay The Rolling Stones all of the royalties from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ for using the hook from ‘The Last Time’. And things for visual artists may also be-a-changin’. In the US of A, artist Shepard Fairey, who made the now iconic Obama ‘Hope’ election poster, is embroiled in a far from straight-forward legal case with Associated Press, which claims he infringed copyright by using an AP photograph as the basis for his artwork. Borrowing an observation from a colleague, why are the visual arts treated as different when it comes to issues of copyright? I’m not saying it’s wrong, necessarily – just suggesting that it’s a question worth asking.
Final thought – Pynacker spent three years studying in Italy before returning to the Netherlands and settling in Amsterdam. He became one of the most renowned Northern painters of Italianate allegorical scenes inspired by the Italian Baroque. He painted landscapes such as this one, showing a romanticised genre scene infused with warm Mediterranean light, and framed by verdant foliage, informed by plenty of plein air excursions in the footsteps of Claude. But the setting itself is, most likely, allegorical and imaginary. So – can a scene conjured up in the imagination of a 17th century Dutch painter qualify as “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours … completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date …” which, according to the Prize website, is what is required of the winner? Perhaps the rule itself is rather archaic and silly. But, it’s a rule nonetheless and one that, presumably, the other entrants stuck to. Again, it’s a question worth asking.