What is art? The sequel.

Way back last year I commented on the award of the American Watercolor Society's 2008 Gold Medal to a Ms Sheryl Luxenburg who'd used 2 stock photographs that belonged to another person as the basis for her entry. (See here.)

As a result of that blog entry I got a letter in the post from Ms Luxenburg's lawyers - which gave me pause for some serious thought. However, I felt the issue raised important points as, with digital photography and the internet being what they are, it is all too easy for someone to pass off another's work as their own. So, with a few minor modifications, I let my entry stand.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, and on forums, there was a storm of protest from both photographers and artists. The two hot questions were:
  1. Mostly from photographers ... The legality of what Ms Luxenburg had done. Was she entitled - even if she'd bought reproduction rights from the agency - to pass the images off as her own work and earn a substantial prize from them?

  2. Mostly from artists ... Had she broken the rules of the AWS's competition?
A number of bloggers and forum moderators received lawyers letters, too. And some of the posts disappeared. But that didn't silence the discussion.

As a result, the American Watercolor Society withdrew the award and started investigations. Now, at last, they have reached a ruling (edited) ...

The American Watercolor Society, Inc., (AWS) releases the following statement to the AWS membership and the artist community about the withdrawal of 2008 Gold Medal:

The controversy surrounding the American Watercolor Society’s 141st International Exhibition Gold Medal winner, “Impermanence,” by Canadian artist Sheryl Luxenburg has been the subject of innumerable blogs, websites and chat rooms worldwide for many months.

We sincerely appreciate all those who contacted the society and respect all opinions expressed on this issue. This dialogue has contributed to our understanding of the extent to which the art community has taken an interest in the outcome of this issue as it affects each artist and the respective art societies ...

The American Watercolor Society ... has developed its eligibility requirements for entry ... as follows. “The Annual Exhibition is open to all artists working in water media (watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache, and egg tempera) on paper. No collage, pastels, class work, copies, digital images or prints; original work only.

The requirements as contained in the prospectus as well as the acceptance form are quite specific and leave no room for ambiguity. Upon acceptance, the requirements are further emphasized by a disclaimer signed by the artist stating that “The accompanying artwork is an original; not a copy or likeness of another’s work, i.e. painting, drawing or photograph.”

Our prospectus clearly informs artists of these eligibility requirements which were designed to maintain high standards and to focus on originality.

By establishing these requirements, the onus rests with the artists to ensure compliance with the rules set forth. Each artist is therefore free to accept or decline these conditions.

When it was determined that Ms. Luxenburg’s entry violated our eligibility requirements, the AWS requested that our Gold Medal and prize money be returned. The Medal and prize money were returned, and Ms. Luxenburg has been disqualified from entering any future AWS exhibitions ...

(The full statement can be read here)

The legality of Ms Luxenburg's actions rests unresolved. But the issue with regard to her using work that was not her own to enter this competition has been settled.

But I believe it goes deeper. Photography is just as much an art form as painting is.

It is no more right for a photographer to take a picture of a painting and pass it off as his/her own work as it is for a painter to make an exact reproduction (as far as the eye can see) of photographs and pass them off as his/her own work.


Jim said...

I'm amazed that it took the AWS so long to reach this decision. What is it? 6 months since this whole thing blew up?

I would have thought that most people, even non artists, could have seen that painting broke the rules in 6 seconds.

Drew said...

I'm taken aback that you received a letter from Luxenburg's lawyers. Did they demand that you remove your post? You should scan the letter and add it to your blog post.

Alistair Scott said...

Hi Drew. I was a bit more than taken aback. When I read the letter through at first, still stunned, I took it as a demand that I remove the post. However, a second more careful reading revealed that they were referring to the comments that I'd received, and posted. And ... fair enough ... some of those were libellous. I took some legal advice of my own, removed the libellous comments, and left my post up.

I'll see about scanning the letter and posting it.