Skip to content

Visual Translation

Spotted in today’s NYTimes, in a review titled “Authorship or Translation? Notes Toward Redefining Creativity,” an exhibit at The Drawing Center in New York itself titled “Drawn from Photography” and featuring drawing by artists who meticulously re-create works — or elements of works that appeared originally in photographs.

The review carefully quotes from the catalog for the show:  “[I]s there perhaps some value in the time spent, as if careful attention to other people’s achievements is itself a form of commitment, one that might redefine the nature of creative expression and drawing’s role in it?”

In contemporary copyright law, translation is a form of authorship; this may be the best way to understand the continuing attraction of the pre-Feist “Hand of God” case (Alva Studios v. Winninger, 177 F. Supp. 265 (S.D.N.Y. 1959) (holding that a detailed scaled-down reproduction of Rodin’s Hand of God was copyrightable).  But that analysis may be a necessary and metaphoric accommodation of artistry, in the terms we’ve accepted in copyright law, as much as the analysis represents what the artists are actually doing.  One might argue that the artists in Drawn from Photography are appropriators.  Inevitably, in either case copyright law is using text-based concepts to deal with visual art.  Both Rebecca Tushnet and Rob Kasunic have written or are writing about this problem.

It is a curious by-product of modern copyright’s search for “authorship” that artistic craftsmanship of the sort represented in Drawn from Photography is subjected to the proposition that the artists in question may be “re-defining” creativity.  One might argue, instead, that modern assumptions about “creativity” re-defined older premises about the value of craft.  (I have a short piece up at SSRN and forthcoming in a Elgar book that talks about this topic; my interest in craft derives from my long-standing fascination with legal objects, sometimes known as “things.”)  In some modest ways, is the “re-definition” debate really, instead, a pendulum swinging quietly back and forth?