Across this great country of ours communities have embraced the concept of Public Art, or art for all. In New Mexico they paint murals on water towers. In my home town of Rapid City, South Dakota, we have “Art Alley” where ever-changing graffiti festoons a previously derelict city alley. We also have life-size bronze statues of the past 44 American Presidents on every downtown street corner. This kind of public art is generally publicly funded, or philanthropically endowed, for the betterment of our lives. After all, where would we be without art or music or dance or theatre or any of the arts which bring beauty and surcease into our miserable lives?
You would think that this concept is pretty self-evident.
But then this happened: Just this week I stumbled on a virtual treasure trove of vintage National Park Service posters, products of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression.
I’m sure you have seen them. They were very popular when first produced, and fulfilled their mission of encouraging visitation to our great national parks. Recently they have experienced a resurgence in the form of nostalgic reproductions on sale at National Parks throughout the country. Originally these professionally rendered works of art helped feed the families of out-of-work artists at a time when even skilled workers in the more “practical” trades had trouble finding a job. My own uncle worked as a writer under the WPA, though he never talked about it. I suspect he was slightly ashamed to have taken what was considered by some to be a “hand-out”.
Perhaps it is my background in history, or maybe my own family’s experiences during the thirties, but I had no sooner downloaded a dozen or so of the posters, when I started second-guessing my actions. They were each listed as in the “Public Domain”. A clarifying note stated that because these nameless artists had contracted with the federal government to produce these works of art, they had given up their rights to ownership and – by implication – to any residual payment. (As in reproduction rights). What I was doing was perfectly legal.
But was it ethical?
Was I somehow taking advantage of these gifted artists who traded away the fruits of their talent for groceries?? They’re dead – most likely – so how could I be taking advantage of them? That was years ago. And after all, they did get paid.
But would an artist in the 21st century (or even any other time in the 20th) enter into such a devil’s agreement? Perhaps – if he was hungry enough.
Suddenly all the oxygen left the room. My mind was racing:
How is this different from the great Charley Russell trading his iconic western oils and sketches for drinks at a Great Falls (Montana) watering hole? Over the years, the Mint Saloon accumulated a sizable collection. After serving as a tourist attraction for years, those works made their way to the CM Russell Museum in the same community. (In other words, somebody made a lot of money off those paintings, but it wasn’t Charley.)
There have always been artists, and most often throughout history, they have been starving. They are a constant in the most enlightened civilizations, despite the valiant efforts of wealthy patrons, national endowments, and public programs. I was once a stubborn member of their ranks. I personally know hundreds of artists, musicians and actors – some of whom “sold out” (got real jobs), some who stuck it out, despite the privations, and some who even found a way to support themselves doing what they loved. But I don’t know any who got rich.
Does my using these posters without compensation, or even attribution, constitute theft?
I don’t know.