Art and Law Symposium

By Stocker, Mark | Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Art and Law Symposium


Stocker, Mark, Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue


Art and Law Symposium, the Dunedin School of Art and the University of Otago, Faculty of Law, 29 October 2010

Following the success of the 2009 Symposium "Illustrating the Unseeable: Reconnecting Art and Science," the Dunedin School of Art hosted "Art and Law" on 29 October 2010. Its organiser, Peter Stupples, declared that a prime aim of the symposium was to explore the tensions between the freedom of globalised appropriation - particularly via the Internet - and copyright restrictions, imposed to protect the rights and incomes of creators and owners of property. Another recurrent issue was the tension between the artist's freedom of expression and the right of an institution to show it - or not - as the case may be. Thus the two 'c-words', copyright and censorship, monopolised much of the content and certainly the open discussions. The symposium functioned admirably as an arena for an informed and sometimes impassioned exchange of opinions between artists, art educators, curators, historians and theorists, and legal scholars and practitioners. It certainly got me thinking about my own life choices. When I was a student in Britain some thirty years ago, it was very much a case of C. P. Snow's entrenched "two cultures." (1) You either studied Art (in my case Art History) or you studied Law. Rarely if ever did the twain meet. And during my eighteen years at the University of Canterbury, I don't believe that a single Fine Arts student enrolled for Legal Systems, and nor were they encouraged to do so by the Marxist head of school! In a post-modern, interdisciplinary world, this kind of intellectual ring fencing looks increasingly absurd and the symposium made it all the more evident. Proceedings kicked off with three historically grounded papers, delivered by Mark Stocker, Leoni Schmidt and Olivia Crisp respectively. Each of them brought about fascinating but unplanned synergies with what followed. A theme in Mark Stocker's paper on Bertram Mackennal's monumental effigies of Lord and Lady Curzon (1907-13) was later revisited by Oliver Watts when he explored the "efficacy of the image that commands and authorises." Issues of authenticity in relation to the infamous Jan Vermeer faker Han van Meegeren, the theme of Leoni Schmidt's paper, were echoed in Mark Williams's exposition of the R v Liberto judgement (2008), which had involved the faking of Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas's paintings. In turn, Crisp's overview of the Republic of Austria v Altmann (2004) reminded us that the law could be (ab)used by the State as an oppressive tool for the expropriation of Jewish-owned property, in this instance an exquisite Secessionist portrait by Gustav Klimt. Totalitarianism reared its unsightly head again in the Soviet Union in 1929, when the Council of People's Commissars suppressed photography by amateurs in public places. As Erika Wolf later explained, the original intention of such photography had been to celebrate the nobler ideals of the 1917 Revolution, but Stalinism brutally put paid to that.

Jenny Harper's lively paper was the first to raise questions of both copyright and, explored by her in more detail, censorship. (2) As a public art gallery director, she noted the more conservative and cautious exhibition policies of such institutions over the past twenty years. Since the 1998 Virgin in a condom furore (also mentioned by Adam de Hamel), the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has tellingly not shown a single group contemporary art exhibition. Harper explained how she very recently made an executive decision to exclude from exhibition a video where eroticism shaded into pornography and which she would find hard to convincingly defend as 'art.' Peter Shand's finely nuanced paper then addressed questions of copyright. Is it about Lockean natural law? Or about outputs? While in earlier centuries the materiality of the object under copyright was not in question, today the distinction between thinking and making is not nearly so neat. …

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