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?

2 thoughts on “Visual Translation

  1. As the law professor husband of the curator whom you quote, I found this post especially interesting. I’m irredeemably biased of course, but I’ll venture to say that the themes of this particular show go much deeper than a debate over authorship in either the IP sense or in the sense that often gets discussed in the art world. There’s lots having to do with the specific art historical tradition of drawing, and also with the nature of individual agency, especially with respect to the the political and social events depicted. I’ll stop now before I get in trouble, but the whole catalogue essay is definitely worth a read. As the review mentions, what you get to see is actually an artist’s drawing of the essay. I am thinking of trying something similar for my next law review submission.

  2. I’m appropriating, or translating, for my own purposes, obviously. The paper that I cited and a different paper that I didn’t cite (shameless self-promotion avoided) both wander farther into the field that your comment sketches: the intersections among art, agency, and knowledge. I’m interested in how those intersections read on copyright law for reasons that have relatively little to do with authorship and much more to do with closing some gaps between copyright and creative and artistic practice — and perhaps widening others.

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