This past July, a German court ruled that a publisher must pay the family of Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, copyright royalties for the publisher’s use of Goebbels’ diary. During this same month, Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz threatened to withdraw their art works on loan to several German museums in protest of a proposed new German law that would result in stronger oversight over imported cultural artifacts and tighten export restrictions for cultural assets that are more than fifty years old or valued at more than $162,000.
These two incidents highlight the manner in which law can restrict, limit, or facilitate access to cultural works. What if the Goebbels heirs had denied the author and publisher of Goebbels’ book access to his diaries? What if artists and private collectors start withdrawing, en masse, their art works from German museums? What do we mean when we say that artists and their heirs have a right to remuneration for the artist’s creativity? Conversely, what do we mean when we say that the public has a right to culture? Which public? Which culture? And is this “right” or “non-right” to be mediated solely through the law?
Let us take for example artists’ foundations, which are increasingly leveraging intellectual property rights to monetize and—according to some critics—control and regulate the dissemination of and access to an artists’ works and archives. Some critics call this artistic-cultural phenomenon, “copyright censorship.” Perhaps. But we cannot forget that for some artists’ foundations this valuation and financial exploitation of art is also a means to financially support living artists and arts institutions.
Thus, to what extent should a living artist, or an artist’s estate, if post-mortem, control the circulation and access to her work? In the case of a deceased artist, should the artist’s family or country of origin have a say in who is allowed to purchase, own, and control access to the artist’s work? Furthermore, given the current fascination with the now commonplace gesture of appropriation, must an appropriating entity be required to “respect” the content—i.e., the culture—of the underlying work?
“Culture is ordinary,” the Welsh intellectual Raymond Williams once wrote. If this is true, then we must examine what we mean by the public’s right to culture, given that the public already has access to what Williams coined “anthropological culture”—culture of the everyday, though not necessarily that culture peddled and promoted by cultural institutions, and mass media. On the other hand, the public is posed with certain challenges when accessing ”high” or institutional culture: admission fees, hours of operation, limited access to technology, and level of education, to name a few. Or, have we reached a historical moment when this “high” culture is only entertainment culture and we are left with nothing but everyday and ordinary culture—in other words, public culture?