09 August 2016

Who Owns What - Diane Arbus

I have been reading the new Diane Arbus bio by Arthur Lubow. If you want a detailed review of the book check out this New Yorker review. This is my own attempt at grappling with who owns and artist's work.  I have more questions than answers, but this bio brought that issue to the forefront.

What is weird about this bio is the lack of photographs.  The Arbus Estate refused to allow any photos. It is not that Ecco refused to pay for photos, nor did they want to use them without attribution.  I think this is weird.  I will grant you that I would not want someone digging into my life, tracking down folks I wrote letters to years ago, talking to medical professionals, or anyone else. 

Arbus became wildly famous after she died. The family didn't seem to worry about that fame when they were making money.  More importantly, Arbus' work has become a visual iconography of America.  Her still photos are referenced in movies and in print, she is linked to her photographs like a Robert Mapplethorpe, one sees the image and sees Arbus. 

Don't get me wrong, I think people have the right to get paid for their work, I'm not trying to argue that issue, I just wonder what the point is to placing a strangle hold on an estate.  Just think where Shakespeare would be today if a lawyer controlled his estate?  We are still watching his plays because directors are allowed to transform plays from the 1500's and make them relevant in every age. 

We all know Mickey Mouse, he is a part of our life, but recently a daycare center was served with an injunction from Disney because they had a freehand painting of Mickey on the wall.  Really?  Warhol paints Barbie and to use the image one needs permission from both Warhol and Mattel. 

I am sure the Arbus family didn't want the world to know that Diane and her brother, Howard, had a sexual relationship for years, but blocking photos didn't stop that.  Diane Arbus would get naked to photograph nudists, she liked the underbelly of life, so it is hard to think that she would withhold her images for a biography about her life.

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