August 24, 2007
A Conceptual Act
During the long dog days of Summer '08, dominated as they have been by Richard Serra’s retrospective and Martin Creed’s self-conscious ‘Stylistic Conceptual Art’ (classification courtesy of Professor Joseph Kosuth) at the Center for Collegiate Studies, one virtual footnote might have escaped your surfdom. ArtNet’s German site first picked it up, and condensed a brief English mention of an artist rights law suit which poses that intriguing question, ‘Where does the copyright protection of a work of art begin?’
Briefly, a conceptual artist named Ayse Erkmen has claimed that Berlin-based conceptual artist Peter Friedl had stolen her idea of using a taxidermied giraffe in an art installation. Friedl’s piece, The Zoo Story, made it to Documenta 12 this summer so Erkmen began legal proceedings to prohibit him from using an ‘idea’ she claims to have had in 2004. Erkmen apparently ‘conceived’ a plan to ‘borrow’ a stuffed giraffe - and other stuffed animals from the Qalqiliyah Zoo in Palestine that had been originally killed in an Israeli bomb attack in the 2002 Intifada - for a proposed installation in Birmingham. Erkmen’s installation was not mounted due to ‘political and organizational difficulties,’ thus her ‘idea’ was never realized.
The regional court of Kassel promptly dismissed Erkmen’s injunction request against Friedl and Documenta 12 on grounds that ideas, in Germany as in the United States, are not protected by copyright. Even more interesting is the wording of the court document, which goes on to include the pronouncement that Friedl’s artwork - ‘giraffe-as-found-object’ - was essentially ‘a conceptual act.’ Putatively paraphrased at length [my German is non-existent but Google translates] on ArtNet’s Deutsch site, the court claims that ‘the giraffe is a ready larva – a found object, which is shifted into the art context, in order to steer the focus there on a certain question.’ And still more problematic: ‘This discrepancy becomes particularly apparent with such works of art, which do not experience an individual artistic organization by the hand of their author.’
Thereby, the regional court smartly absolved itself from making a further ‘statement to the artistic value of Erkmen’s or Friedl’s respective ideas.’ The court finally allowed that given that this particular ‘artistic interference takes place in the case of the transport of a giraffe from Palestine into a European art area on [a] purely conceptual level’ then ‘it does not lie with the judge to rise to the [position of] art critic by expressing itself for the artistic relevance of a work.’
For his part, Peter Friedl replied that ‘so far still NOBODY asked me in this thing per (sic) something over history [of] the ’zoo story.’ He goes on to give March 17, 2003 as the initial germination date of his ‘idea’ and suggests that in the art world’s ‘standard situations’ there is more artistic ‘competition.’ As for the litigating conceptualist: ‘Mrs. Erkmen, whom I do not know.’
Well and good, yet several alarming scenarios present themselves and perhaps new ‘tactics’ must be undertaken to protect one’s ‘ideas’ in this increasingly complex ‘art world.’ Certainly there is no reason to doubt Friedl’s claim to ‘not know’ the other conceptual artist, however, Erkmen felt herself sufficiently maligned and tried to legally stop the other installation. Which seems to leave us with two distinct possibilities: Friedl could have learned, either consciously or unconsciously, of Erkmen’s idea through the ‘grapevine’ of art world gossip, or simply had a similar conception at the same time.
Historically speaking, ‘ideas’ have been expressed simultaneously in art with the principals having no knowledge of one another’s actions. The most salient example would be the sites of prehistoric cave drawings found in multiple locations, works occurring prior to global communication ability. More recently, we might look at the global development of abstract painting in simultaneity by Hans Hartung, George Mathieu, Pollock and the Gutai Group.
Which leaves the ‘grapevine’ theory and a somewhat paranoiac conclusion: if artists develop a conceptual idea then said idea should be protected through self-awareness. The concept ought to remain safely within the interiority of the artist’s mind until such time as its conception can be made manifest. Drawings and proposals, of course, could be rendered with proper copyright protections to establish authenticity, precedence and provenance.
40 years ago, two earlier, originary conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Sol Lewitt had clearly indicated the direction ‘ideas’ were taking. In his 1967 essay, ‘'Notes on Conceptual Art and Models', Kosuth said, ‘All I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas. Rather than 'ideals' the models are a visual approximation of a particular art object I have in mind.’ In Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, written in 1968, he states, ‘Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.’
If the early conceptualists truly ‘envisioned the finished artwork as simply the realization of an initial idea that could be executed by an anonymous fabricator’ (1), then it would seem that Erkmen should not be so displeased with Friedl’s ‘execution’ of her idea – provided he acknowledged her ‘idea’ and perhaps shared credit and accolades with her. If this is the ‘test case’ finally for ‘conceptual acts’ then the courts need to take a lengthier and scholarly review, with not only precedence and history as guiding criteria, but also engaging in discourse with the founding proponents of conceptual art. Kosuth is alive (60) and teaching. Victor Burgin, Mel Bochner, and Terry Atkinson – all could be brought in for their consultation on conceptual art, ‘idea’ protection, documentation and ‘ownership.’
Perhaps in these mercurial times, with millisecond downloads amidst our media-saturated and icon-driven culture, artists have every reason to be circumspect with their ideas. This renewed sense of privacy and protectiveness with regard to ‘ideas’ might even yield the beneficial re-deployment of ‘mind’ and a return to self-reflexivity to activate an interior discursivity.
Image: The Zoo Story, Copyright 2007 by Peter Friedl.
1. Wollen, Peter. Global Conceptualism and North American Conceptual Art, New York, 1999, 77-78.