Breaking the Rules

As an art lawyer, Warhol’s death provoked in me serious thoughts about art and money, including the rules of the marketplace.

Between thought and expression Lies a lifetime. *

And though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, lean make it.**

Andy Warhol’s sudden death last month is as much a provocation now as were his life and work. (Linger on, your pale blue eyes.*) It provoked a quasi-legal battle to stop Christie’s (USA) conducting an auction of his works (planned before his demise), the issue being the serious change in their value inevitably in prospect since the author’s output suddenly became finite. Grave-turning time already, Andy? In this country, it produced a curious obituary in The Times – ‘slight man who wore a white wig’ – and commentary in equally light vein elsewhere about the superficiality of the man/work. As an art lawyer, Warhol’s death provoked in me serious thoughts about art and money, including the rules of the marketplace.

Firstly, how ironic that by his death Warhol’s obsession with multiples should cause such commercial grief (the Christie’s auction); but will the production-line of multiple (even limited) originals now cease, so that a market-price rise becomes inevitable? Who knows? U.S. copyright law is similar to, but not the same as ours, but their copyright rules do, like ours, give authors copyright in their original works which can last for years beyond their death. Did Warhol make a will disposing of his copyrights; if so, who’s’ got them? Are there unpublished works even now rushing through the printing-publishing processes to the marketplace? I wouldn’t put it past him to have disposed of his copyrights in such a way as to put all his works into the ‘public domain’ – that is, to enable any amount of reproductions to be made by any number of people for any purposes anywhere in the world – after his death; so, what price the ones already bought? And that’s just a fun thought for starters.

On a more serious note, Warhol challenged and successfully broke the then rules of the art marketplace, i.e. the accepted rules for conversion of art product into money. When he started to come to public notice in the sixties, there were then (and still, though differently, are) rules which controlled the process by which the art marketplace made the artist the alchemist of contemporary society. I see them as the following. First, nomination of selected individuals as ‘artist’, by the marketplace; second, supply to, and demand by, that marketplace of appropriately ‘marketable’ work; third, legal (including fiscal) rules in and of the marketplace regarding authenticity and originality, fair play in contractual dealings, regulation of money inside a state for their purchase and exchange controls between states for those purposes, investment and banking controls for the borrowing and accumulation of money deriving from works, and regulations for the evaluation and taxing of works as capital assets. I am not competent, nor is there time and space here, to deal with the first two, but an examination of the third, albeit in the context of the first two, can be illuminating in the light of Warhol’s death.

The ‘hand of the artist’, in the post-renaissance sense, was hardly ever publicly perceived as present in his work – other people, it seemed, fabricated/manufactured his ‘things’; were his ideas and his direction sufficient to make his work authentic, i.e. from the artist as author? Were collectors buying his work (i.e. his thoughts) and his directional skills, or were they simply buying the physical expressions of his assistants? A fraud on the public, perhaps? An elevation of the status of the banal to that of ‘work of art’?

Replication of readily-available supermarket product-packaging, originally designed by some other ‘commercial* artist/designer (think of Warhol chatting this one over with Duchamp and Beuys); reproduction of portraits made by others – photographs, cinema stills and so on – with premeditatedly crude interferences through over-painting and other markings, and simplistic screen-printing techniques? Just one brief legal point here; copyright is not given by law to images that are slavishly copied from the original works of others, even though there’s some interference in the reproductive processes; also such copies can be an infringement of the original author’s copyright. In this area, therefore, it has to be said that Warhol’s commercial fabrication of his own screenprinted or painted icons, provocatively making two-dimensional the visages of celluloid/living/media icon people like Presley/Monroe/Taylor/widow Kennedy, given the questionable originality for copyright purposes, has always raised for me tantalising questions as to those works not being protected by copyright, or being the copyright of someone else, or being in the public domain for all to reproduce without anyone’s permission. And, of course, the Mona Lisa works – clearly any copyright has expired – make one statement loud and dear: anyone can have a copy of the original icon or of a Warhol copy, even for longer than fifteen minutes. Every home should have one. Reproduction of the dollar bills likewise raised, and still raises, wonderful questions about art and money (for which issue, incidentally, J. S. Boggs is currently paying his dues in the criminal courts of this country, and whose allegedly criminal work owes much to the stimulation of Warhol’s popularisation of this subject; more of Boggs when his case ceases to be sub judice).

One question is the provocation that Warhol’s Dollar Bills (1962), a graphic image of 200 one-dollar bills each one having a face value in the ordinary marketplace of one dollar, was then and is now worth far more than 200 dollars to the art marketplace. Another money question is raised, not only by his images of currency, but also by the marketing of the man and all of his work simultaneously: the rules of the marketplace money game. Perversely, in this area, Warhol kept, manipulated, sometimes invented, the ground rules, rather than breaking them in a conventional sense. For Warhol had a controlled price structure for selling works, whether they were one-offs, editions, multiples and so on; he distributed through established art marketplace channels; above all, he saw that marketing the man-cum-work-cum-man was an astute way of finding, establishing and advancing a paying marketplace. He became a master of the image of the maker as a marketable commodity/product in and of itself.

When starting on these thoughts, I couldn’t resist speaking to Tim Head, an artist whose John Moores’ award winning painting owes much to Warhol’s original ideas of taking the banal supermarket-packaged image and, in Head’s case, moving elsewhere with it. He commented:

‘To portray current images but to do it using current production methods; that’s what was so devastating and far reaching.’

Finally, I leave these provocations: the artist Taylor Woodrow hanging himself on a wall in Bradford last month – poetically completing a circle unwittingly prophesied by David Bowie in 1971 in his then sensitive, now poignant, song ‘Andy Warhol’ (well worth a listen in full, anyway):

Andy walking, Andy tired
Andy take a little snooze
Tie him up when he’s fast asleep
Send him on a pleasant cruise
When he wakes up on the sea
Sure to think of me and you
He’ll think about paint and he’ll think about glue
What a jolly boring thing to do

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all***

© Henry Lydiate 1987

* © Sunbury Music Ltd., 1969: from the album The Velvet Underground.
** © M. Whitmark & Sons, 1966: from the album Bringing It All Back Home.
*** © Chrysalis Music Ltd./Titanic Music Ltd., 1971: from the album Hunky Dory.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.