The Work of Art in the age of Digital Reproduction

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" struck a chord with me from the time I read the title because, as I type this blog post, I am procrastinating on updating Gilcrease Museum’s Rights and Reproductions policy on our website. Gilcrease Museum, like countless other art and cultural institutions, owns the rights to thousands of pieces of art. There are many people ranging from scholars to art-lovers who desire to own a reproduction of a piece of art, or, more complicatedly, want to use a work of art for in a book or film. I had taken for granted any time I read a nonfiction book about an artist and saw their artwork displayed on the page, and I have learned while working at Gilcrease that the process behind printing that piece is incredibly complicated. Gilcrease Museum does not always own the rights to a piece even if we own the piece itself.

In many cases, Gilcrease does not own the rights to a piece because the artist is still living. In others, it is because another organization secured those rights. For example, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Antelope Head with Pedernal is currently on display in our exhibition Masterworks from the Gilcrease Collection. But, we cannot freely share the image on social media or in print without consulting with the Artists Rights Society, who represents the entity who hold the rights to the majority of O’Keeffe’s works (honestly, I can’t remember the name of the entity). It is a big hassle and a barrier for many institutions who cannot afford to pay licensing fees any time they want to reproduce a piece they own, but I digress.

What makes things even more complicated when it comes to reproducing works is that Gilcrease, like many other institutions, had a system for granting reproduction rights that had not altered much since the museum opened in the 1940s. Any individual who wanted to attain the rights for something would submit a form for a quote on how much it would cost to reproduce a piece for their personal use, or use in a book or video. Then, if the use is deemed appropriate, Gilcrease would let them know the price and that individual can decide to continue if they can afford those rights. This can also be a barrier for use, but it does help protect the image from inappropriate use. The form one would submit to attain rights would take into account the purpose, the medium for reproduction, the amount it will be reproduced, among other things. This system worked for decades, but then came the rise of the internet.

Gilcrease Museum has begun seeing the need to grant rights use in perpetuity to individuals who want to use the piece in perpetuity online, either in video format or static on a website. This begs the question: How does one assign value to the use of a work forever by someone who is not the artist themselves? Benjamin’s essay alludes to issues exactly like this when he states in closing,  “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice -politics” (Benjamin, 217.) Politics, of course, can be messy.

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting where we addressed the need to update our system to allow us to grant rights in perpetuity to users. There were some in that meeting who staunchly opposed the idea. Benjamin captures exactly their mentality, as opposers believed allowing perpetual use of these works would be a “tremendous shattering of tradition” (Benjamin, 219.) They shared Benjamin’s sentiment that reproducing these works in perpetuity can damage their aura, which is why we continue to ensure that the uses of these pieces is appropriate when they are reproduced. However, that qualifier is not enough. Although we will do our due diligence in preserving the aura of the work as best we can, there is still the issue of money. If we allow people to use work in perpetuity with a one-time fee, we will not profit as much as we would have if we make the user pay a recurring fee for the duration of that piece’s use.

I felt that was a needless barrier for many of the individuals who seek to use our artwork, as did several of my colleagues. Many of the cases for reproduction are for benevolent purposes that support the study of artwork, which upholds our institutional mission. Not only that, but we would be willingly ignoring the fact that the internet has forever shifted how artwork can be reproduced. Ultimately, I argued that not only can we charge an increased fee to help us cover museum operating costs, but the use of artwork from our collection with our name attached also had value as it strengthens our brand. It was disheartening that our institutions’ defining conversation on how we will allow others to reproduce works from our collection was boiled down to “how can we profit the most?” but it is a fitting example of how, 85 years later, Benjamin was exactly right. We’ve entered an age of digital reproduction, and it is incredibly political.