Whose Landscape Is This?


Christophe Van Eecke 

Two years ago,
landscape was briefly in the news when the European Parliament voted on a
report on copyright rules drafted by Julia Reda, of the
German Pirate Party. The issue that caused controversy was the so-called Freedom
of Panorama. This is the principle that anyone can take photographs of the
public space because the view (the panorama) of the public realm is public
property. Reda argued that it was important to maintain this freedom, but a
Liberal member of the Parliament, Jean-Marie Cavada, introduced an amendment
stating that anyone who would derive any kind of commercial gain from such a
photograph would have to pay copyright fees to the copyright holder of all “works”
that appear in the image.


The amendment
triggered a petition from concerned European citizens. Such regulations would
make it very difficult, for example, to make a film in the public realm: in
theory, one would have to track down the copyright holders (such as the
architects, if still living) of any building that appears in the image. The
amendment speaks of “works” in the public realm, but, obviously, every building is a “work” from the
perspective of the architect who designed it, and not just famous landmarks.
Even bridges on highways are referred to as “works of art” in official
bureaucracy. Especially for independent, low-budget, or no-budget film-making
the logistics and financial implications of such a measure could easily become

In the end, the
amendment did not make it and the Freedom of Panorama remained safe. But there
is no guarantee that it will not be assailed again in the future. It was
therefore a clear reminder of the way in which our entire world, including the
very living space we share with each other, is constantly encroached upon by
those who would commodify it as a source of revenue. In the Freedom of Panorama
case, the intrinsically laudable intention of safeguarding the copyrights of
creative artists had transmogrified into corporate copyright run

The whole affair
made me think about the limited control we have over our world, and how easy it
is to lose the world to corporate capitalism. What would such a copyright rule
do to our relationship with the world? I could imagine people avoiding the
corporate invasion by retreating into private worlds (an evasion the great
Walter Pater would surely bless from beyond the grave). With recent evolutions
in virtual reality and digital imagery we have already gone a long distance
towards realising such worlds. We are already increasingly disappearing into
worlds that are artificially developed and completely parallel to the real
world. On a less technically sophisticated level, for low-budget film-makers such
a flight into fantasy could also mean a return to the early film practice,
derived from theatre, of working with painted backdrops of invented or
fantastical landscapes. Méliès would suddenly be very topical again!

If the real
world is increasingly owned, copyrighted, or branded, the only freedom left us
is the freedom of the mind, the internal space of imagining. But if we all flee
into imaginary worlds and come together in that realm of fantasy, the corporate
capitalists may one day find that they have bought a brave new world that has
nil people in it.

Now, would that
not be a wonderful revenge of fantasy upon capital?

© Image: Christophe Van Eecke

Art meets money: a moral panic!

By Tessel M. Bauduin


Money, or more specifically, capital, is a hot and controversial issue in the art world. As Jan Baetens noted recently on this blog, commerce in and commercialization of the art world are debated subjects. Magazines and newspapers report record after record in sales: just recently, nine New York auctions of art from the 1950s to today raised (combined) $ 2.230.800.000, with Christies alone raising 853 mil. dollar (682 mil. euro). These sales led to, for instance, the Dutch newspaper the NRC, and international art news outlets such as the Art Newspaper and Art News proclaiming it the greatest auction record in history, and noting that ‘never before has so much money been spent on art in such a short period’.

The fact that for instance Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol was auctioned for $81.9m makes people upset, to say the least. There are complaints about the art market being a bubble. Auctions houses, gallery owners, and buyers are accused of speculating. New billionaire buyers on the art market buy art only as an investment; or, at best, they buy art to increase their social standing. All of this is clearly considered deplorable. As Matthew Slotover, co-founder of influential art platform Frieze stated recently at a panel discussion, ‘Money should follow art. Art should not follow money’.

The panel discussion in question was ‘Art, Capital & Avantgarde’, hosted at Amsterdam discussion venue De Balie as part of the Amsterdam Art Weekend programme (28-11-2014). Other speakers included the new director of the Stedelijk Museum, Beatrix Ruf, artist Zachary Formwalt, and sociology professor Olav Velthuis. The discussion’s description asked whether there still even is ‘critical potential to a painting that has become a market-fetish, a toy for speculative investors and a glaring symbol of the global inequality of wealth?’ Indeed, can one even avoid the ‘pitfall, power and influence of big money’?[1] A similar spirit of fear, distrust and even disgust towards money pervaded the panel. Traces of a moral panic were undeniably tangible. Artists, institutions, galleries and also, collectors and buyers should above all be motivated by the quality of art; or such was the consensus. The presence of capital in the art market—and its related associations of speculation and investment—was clearly considered a horrible development. Young rich buyers acquire art works of Hirst, Koons, Warhol or Richter only to store them; in other words, they don’t even have visual access to their art, let alone any aesthetic enjoyment if it. What horror!

The one really valuable contribution to the panel, in my view, was provided by the one scientist on the panel: sociologist Velthuis from the University of Amsterdam. Using data and statistics, Velthuis made clear that the money-discussion is indeed a moral panic, perpetrated by the media, which has nothing to do with actual developments in the art market. Indeed, corrected for inflation, the total amounts made at art auctions have over the past 30 years hardly kept any pace with the growing number of billionaires worldwide. Whatever those new billionaires are doing with their money, they’re certainly not buying art. Velthuis’s book Talking Prices. Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton University Press, 2005) clearly outlines how the panicky art discourse operates, and subsequently demonstrates why it is based on untruths and distortions by using historical data and insightful statistic analysis.[2] Besides for students of art markets, art sociology, patronage and the arts in general, it should be obligatory reading for members of the art world as well.

In the end, the most important question, which touches upon the roots of this debate, remained unanswered. Why, in fact, are money and capital such “dirty” concepts in the art world? Why should art not follow money? Indeed, already in the art market of the Dutch Golden Age collectors were buying art as an investment, or to raise their social status, besides out of appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. In Renaissance times the Florentine Medici family were great patrons of the arts, and they used their patronage to gain further wealth, influence and power. Art has never stood apart from society and that society’s concerns. Obviously throughout the history of the arts aesthetic quality has been talked about as the major qualifier for discussing, collecting and acquiring art, but in the end, money, social standing and other concerns have always played their part in the real transactions of art. Only a cursory study of contracts between artists and patrons will reveal this. This, clearly, is why cultural historians are such a welcome presence in these debates. If only to point out that the notion that art should remain free of any social or financial worth, but be pure, authentic and original and only judged on its aesthetic worth, goes right back to 19th century art discourses. Thus this ‘moral panic’ about art prices is nothing new—and not even true, at that.

[1] De Balie, ‘Art, Capital & Avantgarde’: http://www.debalie.nl/agenda/programma/kunst,-kapitaal-%26-avant+garde/e_9491548/p_11647645/ (accessed 1-12-2014), my translation. 

[2] Read the introduction here: press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8035.pdf. 

Image credits: Steve Lambert, ‘Capitalism Works for me’ at Spaces Gallery, https://www.flickr.com/photos/spacesgallery/6173517984/in/photostream/ shared under creative commons

Poor Investors

images of the financial crisis – 1866 and 2008

By Thomas Smits


On May 19th 1866 curious images appear on the covers of the Illustrated London News and the French L’Illustration, the most famous illustrated newspapers of the nineteenth century. On the cover of the Illustrated News we see a crowd of top-hat-wearing men looking anxiously in large format newspapers, presumably the Times. The capitation reads: ‘The panic in the city. Scene in Lombard street on Friday’.  The caption of the front page of L’Illustration is set to a different tune: ‘Siege of the office of the bank Overend, Gurney and Cie, Lombard street, in London’. Here we see a real panic: a crowd storming a bank, police trying to control the situation and a fainting man on the foreground. The cause of the ‘panic in Lombard Street’ is maybe already clear. Investors rushed to Lombard Street to get their money from the defaulting banking house of Overend, Gurney and Company.



It is not hard to compare the crisis of 1866 to the one that we are experiencing today. Overend and Gurney is often described as ‘the bankers bank’. The company dealt in bills of exchange: documents that guaranteed the payment of a specific amount at a specific date. Therefore, the bank can be compared to the financial institutions that caused the collapse of 2008. They were not involved in traditional products, like loans, but in the trade of financial derivatives. Overend and Gurney rose to prominence during the ‘Panic of 1825’, the first economic crisis that is not attributable to an external event, like a war, but mainly to speculative investment in Latin America including the imaginary country of Poyais (read more about it here and here). In 1825 the bank was able to extend loans to other banks that were bound to collapse and hereby started the so-called ‘interbank lending market’, an important component of our current financial system. 

Were did it all go wrong? In the late 1850s the bank invested heavily in railway companies and other long-term loans. Ten years later the owners found that their short-term cash reserve amounted to only one million pounds while their liabilities were estimated at roughly four million (note that financial institutions in our time have far lower cash reserves). The directors of the bank reacted to this problem by turning their business into a limited company. In other words: they gave out stocks.

The newly acquired capital was invested in a rather irresponsible manner, as the early Marxist Henry Hyndman describes it, the directors of the bank “(…) were encouraging and embarking in enterprises of a character which were so unsound in themselves, and so dangerous from the class of people connected with them, that the veriest tyro [an absolute beginner] in finance would have instinctively shrunk from them (…)." Although the directors of Overend and Gurney were put on trial for fraud connected to these high-risk investments, the judge only found them guilty of ‘great error’ rather than criminal behaviour. This, of course, reminds us of the risks that employees in the financial sector are encouraged to take in our time (read the blog of Joris Luyendijk) and the lack of (legal) responsibility ascribed to them after the collapse of 2008.

Because of major losses on the risky investments, the bank had to suspend payment on the 10th of May 1866. Shareholders rushed to the office of Overend and Gurney in Lombard Street to get their money and this lead to the chaotic scenes on the covers of the illustrated newspapers.  Lets return to these images. How can we compare the visual coverage of the crisis of 1866 in the two illustrated newspapers to our ‘own crisis’? What and who do we see if we think about the current situation? Which images come to mind? What groups are seen as the victims of financial collapse? Type in ‘Great depression 1930’ on Google Images and you will find Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother or a man holding up a sign ‘Work is what I want, not charity’. Personally, when I think of our crisis I see a young man, wearing an expensive suit, sitting behind his desk. He is staring at four, or maybe five, computer screens which all show the same descending red line. In other words: I see a poor investor, just like the ones on the covers of the illustrated newspapers in 1866. How is it that I don’t see an image of a family leaving their foreclosed home? A modern equivalent of Lange’s Migrant Mother? Why is it so hard for us – or at least for me – to imagine these victims of the crisis? 


Image credits:

1: "RVS Handelsraum” by Raiffeisenverband Salzburg

2: Detail of: ‘The panic in the city: scene in Lombard street on Friday’, Illustrated London News (19 May 1866).

3: ‘Assaut a la maison de banque Overend, Gurney et Cie, dans Lombard Street, à Londres’, L’Illustration (19 May 1866).

4: D. Lange, ‘Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California [Migrant Mother] (1936). Via Library of Congress.

See the original pages of the illustrated newspapers here and here

Images shared under creative commons.