Patricia Williams

Patricia Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University. She authors the column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” for The Nation Magazine and maintains a blog at www.madlawprofessor.wordpress.com.

Patricia J. WilliamsMarc Adelman’s montage Stelen is filled with “cruel harmonies and stimulating rhythms,” as Edgard Varese described Stravinsky’s 1913 debut of The Rite of Spring. On the surface, the mounting and subsequent removal of Stelen by The Jewish Museum raises questions about expectations of privacy on the Internet, censorship, fair use, appropriation, commodification, and the failure to procure the consent of the men pictured, particularly given that they are citizens of many countries, some of whose laws and customs make the risk of “outing” a deadly one. Still, the law is a dull guide to the deeper, harder questions of aesthetics, the patrolling of sexuality, sacrilege, and art. What is one to see in these silent appeals for love among the monumental ruins? Why gay men? Why an online dating site? Why the Holocaust Memorial? Adelman’s juxtapositions are unsettling, the dislocating beauty of the portraits simultaneously evoking melancholy, heartache, desire, and outrage. The audiences for that first rendition of The Rite of Spring were so unnerved that history remembers them as “rioting.” Adelman’s piece is similarly discomforting—as well as literally threatening to its subjects—in its deploy of voyeurism as radically unconventional address of public memorialization. And that is the heart of the matter that the law cannot settle.
 
First, a museum has broad curatorial discretion in deciding what to exhibit. Unlike the Brooklyn Museum’s encounter with Mayor Giuliani over Chris Ofili’s work, this case does not involve governmental or outside funders censoring what must or must not be shown. And as distressing as it is on many levels, the culling of images from online dating sites without the explicit consent of the people pictured is presently a largely unregulated activity. Nearly all online media sites have terms of service—should anyone actually be able to find them to read them—leaving little question that upon entering cyberspace, you’ve kissed your soul goodbye.

Contract terms notwithstanding, however, it’s nearly impossible to conduct oneself in the industrialized world without exposing oneself in unintended ways that challenge what we have historically valued as privacy, as dignity, as respect and self-respect. Life online, in other words, presses all of us—including artists—to assess our underlying commitment to the ethics of intimacy, exposure, and danger. But then art always risks “taking” the intimacy of human form and bending it awry in careless echo chambers of enmity or exoticism, prurience or puppetry. 

If the exposure in Stelen muddles boundaries in relatively new technological ways, the fundamental questions presented are perhaps quite old. The law of intellectual property has always struggled to balance interests of monopoly and commonweal. That balance is all the more tangled where one group’s perceived appropriation touches on another’s perceived site of reverence. Is a self-portrait on a dating website one’s “own” artistic rendering—so connected to the mind’s singularly productive “copyright” as to deserve protection from alteration or re-touch? Or is a website more like a big communal hopper, a garden into which everyone tosses ideas with the expectation that they will hybridize to produce crowd-sourced cultural riches? Finally, is online discourse a mere disinvested, uninflected species of intercourse with the world—unblessed by muses, dross to be milled into utilitarian profit by enterprising, unanticipated miners-of-the-cyber-universe?

We remain far from consensus in sorting how social media are redefining, on a global scale, our moral and aesthetic perceptions. Nor do the neutral principles of law adequately deal either with the panic that has ensued in this instance—for it is hard to imagine such clamor if Adelman’s work had featured a heterosexual dating site—or with the very constraining dangers posed to anyone who assumes there can be secrets in a brave new world of  boundless surveillance. Yet this unnerving, even immoral re-visioning is surely at the line where art always meets politics. Stelen breaks through the fourth wall by rendering its musicians its audience, as well as its audience its musicians. Stravinsky would have recognized this clash: it is as though all concerned had not only stomped out of the theater but demanded the right to take their part of the score home. Revolution doesn’t get much more revolutionary than that.


What are the ethical concerns for artists who appropriate images from the Internet? To what extent should artists consider privacy, the personal safety of their subjects, and First Amendment rights?

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Posted in: Art