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by Robbin Murphy

TOPIC #5: Becoming Objects

Take an object.

Do something to it.

Do something else to it.

"      "      "   "   " 

(Jasper Johns, Notebook [ND], 1965)

Gossip spreads through the Art World at Internet-like speed. Each gallery is like a node with a constant stream of information going from one to the next over an invisible network of cognoscente carrying packets of art bits. Who needs a modem when you have art handlers?

But, like the Internet, those who aren't plugged in often complain about the obfuscating nature of the language. Luckily we now have Anastasia Aukenstein on the Web filing her reports for ArtNet Magazine using words even your mother could understand. Known to her readers as "The Gallery Yenta" she may not be the most reliable reporter but she does get around.

One recent tidbit was about how much Jasper Johns charged the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the rights to reproduce images of his work in their catalogue for his current retrospective. "There's something brilliant about the way a museum can take public money and turn it into private gain!", she retorted, probably before heading for a free refill on white wine at the MOMA opening (hard liquor was cash).

Ms. Aukenstein makes the common mistake of thinking MOMA is a publicly funded institution -- it's private, as are the majority of major U.S. art museums, and doesn't depend on tax money to survive -- but her accusation has the ring of truth. Johns and other artists of his stature are known for their tight control over reproduction rights to their work. And why not? It's his work. And MOMA stands to make a very hefty profit from the sale of the catalogue over the years.

But, still, there is something shifty about the whole affair, particularly since Johns also recently refused to permit Jill Johnston rights to use his images in her unauthorized biography, "Privileged Information" (Thames & Hudson, 1996). Johnston, who has known the artist for years, broke with convention and wrote about the work in light of his personal life, including his homosexuality. Johns has guarded his personal image as closely as his copyright over the years, with very little that wasn't officially approved leaking out.

Most artists are eager to have images of their work circulated or, even better, gossip about them making the rounds of the art party circuit. Some younger artists such as Ebon Fisher have even taken the methods of PR and used them as material for their work. Fisher prefers the more honest term "propaganda" to describe his process of breeding memes -- ideas that circulate like viruses through the culture -- and hopes to spread his digitally created bionic codes based on community rituals organically through media networks. His need for control of these images is more akin to a gardener tending his plants than a marketer selling his product.

Movie stars have always understood that their personal image is part of an overall package. What they do in private is as much of a performance as what they do on screen in terms of an overall career. Now, musicians are not only protective of their recording rights but now have started to issue versions of the same recording customized for the more conservative demands of retailers such as Wall-Mart, with no warning of this difference in the packaging. The customer is buying the image, not the content. Politicians have also come to terms with this fact of our electronic media saturated age. Bill Clinton doesn't just make policies, he IS his policies just as Jasper Johns doesn't make art objects, he IS an art object and as one is deserving (or so he thinks) of copyright protection like any other original created thing.

So it's a bit ironic that a work by perhaps the most famous western artist, Leonardo da Vinci's "Codex Leicester", is now associated as much with its buyer -- copyright baron Bill Gates, who paid $30.8 million for it and then sent it on the road -- as with the artist.

Or maybe not it's not so ironic after all.

Who better to understand what an object is in a digital age than a programmer? Object Oriented Programming (OOP) is for many programmers, the breakthrough that will bring order to computer chaos and the basis of JAVA. Instead of programs becoming bloated and unwieldy by the continuous additions of functions (like Microsoft's Word 6.0 or like many museums and their collections). OOP emphasizes encapsulation and reuse of code by combining data and the functions that manipulate them into a single object that can perform many functions and be easily reproduced and managed.

People buy art objects for any number of reasons but mostly it's to own an object that has value, either economically or aesthetically. They don't usually have much of a function except to be art objects. Any new Medici's arising out of the computer industry would see this as wasteful. To them objects perform as more than representations of stock certificates or good taste. They don't want an art object by Jasper Johns, they want the "art object Jasper Johns". And though Johns would probably not agree, he's giving them what they want: digitally, artists are becoming objects.


ArtNet Magazine

Jasper Johns: A Retrospective
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Organism: The Brooklyn Web Jam
Notes on an ambient event compiled by Ebon Fisher

Leonardo's Codex Leicester
American Museum of Natural History

Object Oriented Programming
NeXT Software, Inc.

Hot Property: Resource for Intellectual Property

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