David A. Smith
A Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, David A. Smith can be reached at http://davidasmith.net.
One of my favorite TV shows growing up was “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which ran for four seasons in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. You may remember it: the show followed the misadventures of a quirky bunch running an album-rock AM radio station in Cincinnati. A couple of episodes were among the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television.
What puzzled me after it went off the air was that unlike other shows such as “Cheers” or “MASH,” “WKRP” rarely showed up in syndication. Years later I learned that the producers had only purchased the rights to use the music (it used copious amounts of classic and then-contemporary hits) for immediate broadcast and re-runs, not for syndication. It was the first time that I realized the values of the art world and the business world are very poorly compatible.
About 10 years ago former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Bill Ivey wrote an eye-opening book about that uneven compatibility called “Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed our Cultural Rights.”
It’s a scathing indictment of the ways in which business has corrupted the broader art world for the purpose of profits. I recommend it to anyone interested in seeing what our elevation of commerce over everything else does to art.
Art is about personal expression of course, but Ivey points out that the nation’s “expressive life is also a container for heritage.” He doubts if market forces alone are the best way to preserve that heritage and “make it available to enrich the expressive lives of citizens.” Most people don’t know “the alarming truth that our creative heritage is mostly owned” by multinational companies.
As way of demonstrating his point, his book lists exactly how much it costs the publisher to use each photograph. A photo of Bob Dylan on page 59, for instance, cost the University of California Press $265, while that famous photo of little John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s passing casket cost $330.
These fees are paid to an “intellectual property asset company” called CORBIS, owned by Bill Gates, that currently controls the use of millions of historic images. In 1995, the company purchased the images in the famed Bettmann Archive and the following year bought the rights to 40,000 photographs taken by artist Ansel Adams.
If you’re wondering, the original artist involved (or his/her heirs) rarely sees any of this money. “In the world of technology-dependent art forms, the creator generally does not end up controlling, and sometimes even owning, the rights to his or her own work,” Ivey explained.
Having to pay high fees for the use of what Ivey calls the American cultural heritage is business as usual — that is, for business. While “fair use is essential to artists, critics, and scholars,” he writes, “copyright-dependent corporations hate it,” and have pretty much all but eradicated it.
That’s why the integrity of “WKRP” (an example he includes in the book) falls apart when it shows up in syndication without its music or with generic sound-alikes dubbed in because buying the rights to use the original songs is now cost-prohibitive. I’m not sure what would happen today to visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol who incorporated numerous images from the public sector in their works.
As NEA chairman, Bill Ivey became all too familiar with how little attention politicians pay to these issues. “It’s not as though policy leaders never see art and artists,” he explains, “they just don’t place America’s expressive life anywhere on the public interest agenda.”
It would be better for the arts if we all started doing that.