El Greco, copyright, and access to culture*

I am not an art critic. Far from it. Just an amateur who likes to visit museums or galleries that feature the works of artists I enjoy or do not know. As such, while in Madrid, I stopped by the Museo del Prado, where “El Greco & Modern Painting” was being exhibited. It’s very possible that my academic obsessions informed the way I studied the paintings and processed the explanations. And, in this case, I found a direct line of argument between what was being shown and the necessary reformulation of laws that regulate copyright. If with this introduction I have provoked in you, reader, some intuitive sense of where I’m going, I recommend that you continue reading this brief note.

Having mentioned that I’m not an art critic, and in order to avoid any bad description of a rudimentary observer, I’ll take advantage of the description that newspaper El País of Madrid published on the exposition. It reads, “El Greco did not die in Toledo in 1614, despite what books on the History of Art say. Like the ghost of Elvis in the gas stations in Tennessee, the spirit of the Cretan painter could be seen guiding Manet in the rooms of the Prado and in that initial trip to Madrid in 1865; it sat in the beer halls in Munich to spur on the members of the Blue Rider group half a century later; or it appeared in the Long Island studio of Pollock just in time for the foundational moment of action painting.”

In the same article, something else is explained that anyone who sees the exhibit can confirm: “On occasion […] the influence is so palpable that what is lacking one of those ingenious systems that permits passing from one piece to the other drawing back an invisible lace curtain: the astonishing couples formed by The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest and a portrait of Modigliani by Paul Alexandre (1913); the Gypsy (1915) by Delaunay and the San Sebastián painted by El Greco three hundred years before; or that undisguised version of The Adoration of the Name of Jesus that Max Beckmann titled in 1907 Study for the Resurrection I.”

What the exposition shows and demonstrates – I invite you to watch the video that can be found on the museum’s website – is that a significant number of artists owed their inspiration to the work of the Cretan master, with strikingly similar lines between the work itself and that which was a source of inspiration. It is evident that all of those who were influenced by El Greco created different cultural objects and that therefore, no “copyright” would have corresponded to El Greco in making claims to the artists who share the Museo del Prado exhibit.

The technology at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was substantially different than current technology. It is difficult to know what Picasso, Pollock, Chagall or so many others would have done with digital technology. It seems to me that what these masters did with El Greco is what our generations are doing with techniques that we know as “remixes” or “mash ups.” But, while clearly the objects that are produced with these techniques are cultural property distinct from those that form the basis of their creation, current regulations that protect the “property” of the copyright without exceptions – such as the case of the ancient law 11.723 of Argentina – make it so that those who use them can be brought to trial to demand compensation for the “copying” or “reproduction” of the work without authorization.

But there is not only reaction against those who use protected works to create their own, but in addition requests to block sites on the Internet are increasing based on the application of laws that protect copyrights. It is for that reason that upon leaving the Museo del Prado, I was left wondering how many Picassos, Pollocks or Chagalls could be falling by the wayside today. In other words, it would not be good for those who admire them today if these masters had not been able to access the works of El Greco and feel his inspiration. And it is not good that, for present and future generations, we could today be getting close to the creation of cultural goods thanks to the application of laws that merit a fresh look and urgent modification.

 *This article was originally written in Spanish. I thank Sophie Sadinsky, a PILA fellow at CELE, who helped in the translation into English.

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