Julian Stallabrass: Permission to reproduce denied (2009)

Three cheers to the High Art Lite author for taking a stand, but why is it standard practice to hide image reproduction refusals from readers?

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 17 August 2009

Sometimes you find certain inspiration for topics in unexpected places. Such was the case when I was reading Julian Stallabrass’s High Art Lite (1999/2006). I came across three beautiful illustrations of artworks inside the book.

I present one of these illustrations below the book covers:

julian stallabrass high art lite

Richard Billingham High Art Lite Julian Stallabrass

Honest, daring, and informative, I thought.

As any art/design book writer knows, requesting image copyright reprint approvals are a necessary evil in the work. And sometimes copyright holders understandably want to protect their interests— or even push their PR line.

But why can’t it be standard practice for writers to inform readers when image reprints are refused, or texts have been modified— and alert our community that yet again this is happening?

This would not only raise critical media awareness, but it would also provide an important context when images, especially for monographs, even for feature magazine articles, are presented to readers witnessing the surface of the media discourse.

Onto excerpts of my interview with Julian Stallabrass:

R.J. Preece: What was the process of image reproduction requests for your book?
Julian Stallabrass: It was done by the publisher in the usual way. We had no problem with the others. A few people asked to see passages in the book, which is not an unusual request.

There was only one strong objection from [one gallerist]. I spoke to him a number of times. The whole situation emerged in a rather contingent way. He was saying, “Oh yes you can have them” and then, “Oh no you can’t” right up to the production time. So basically we were left with these gaps in the book, which we then had to deal with. So we took this strategy.

I’m happy with it. I think it’s quite instructive. I’m slightly surprised that having done it in the 1999 edition, when the book was revised a number of years later, we went back to him and asked him if he’d like to supply us with the images at this time. And he still said “no”.

R.J. Preece: Was there a reason the images weren’t supplied? Did they not like the copy?
Julian Stallabrass: Well, he wouldn’t say directly. I’ve heard various speculations. I don’t know. I gather it didn’t fit his objectives or that of the artists, and that was that.

This isn’t my only kind of experience with this. I did a piece for October recently, about a quasi-ethnographic strain into contemporary art photography. I got into very long discussions with a foundation about very fine points about details in my text. The threat was always there that they’d withdraw permission to reproduce pictures.

It turned out to be a rather interesting discussion. I was able to put forward a position that a too bland, positive, and uniform literature about an artist can be damaging to their reputation. And a certain critique, salt, in the discussion is good. And they did take that on.

julian stallabrass high art lite

R.J. Preece: You see this power relationship where they own the copyright and they don’t need to allow reproduction of images. When I see books, and I’ve had my own experiences with it, and you hear things, the traditional way I think is to cut it out—and get another photo. In other words, I think the traditional method is to hide what’s happening. What do you think about this? Does it make you wonder about books that you’ve read, wondering what might have been going on beneath the text surface?
Julian Stallabrass: Well, there are lots of things to say about this. One is that the copyright fees charged by museums, institutions, agencies, etc., can be very high. In a way, this is less of a problem for commenting on contemporary art, because many artists are anxious to be represented and many galleries will give the material for free.

When you start dealing with Modern material for instance, then the fees are astronomical—and it alters the economics of art history publishing, which I think is in a degree of crisis at the moment. It can be very difficult to get a book published especially with less popular subjects because the fees upfront are so great.

Indeed, power relations are largely invisible. That’s probably right. I have heard some publishers complain about these fees, and say in fact, that sometimes museums are charging for the copyright of photographs of the works that have long expired. It’s a dubious legal position. There are some venerable art publishers that are going back to very old photographs of art to avoid fees. But in order to maintain good relations with those institutions, they generally carry on paying, even when perhaps legally, they wouldn’t have to.

And of course the power relations between an individual scholar like myself and such institutions are very skewed.

I guess the other thing that it builds into is the idea that there’s quite a lot of art history that one way or another serves as a form of publicity. And that’s particularly true with the preponderance of exhibition catalogue publishing and monograph publishing. And with living artists it’s particularly difficult to write monograph pieces, certainly at book length, which are not laudatory.

Mark Wallinger High Art Lite Julian Stallabrass

R.J. Preece: Do you think students know this— that when you see a monograph on a contemporary artist— I think that all the artists have approved the texts. Because if they had a big problem with it, then they could just pull their copyrights.
Julian Stallabrass: There are artists who don’t insist in seeing copy. So there’s a variability here. And there are those who are more serious about encouraging critical debate about their work then others. But I think that’s right: many students don’t see that. And it’s very difficult to see because the literature as a whole has a certain uniformity in that sense.

R.J. Preece: It’s invisible.
Julian Stallabrass: Yes. It is hard to see, especially when you are new to the field.

R.J. Preece: Did you see this usage of “Permission to reproduce denied” before, where they exposed the process?
Julian Stallabrass: No, but I did have in mind for a bit an essay by Bataille about Dali’s The Lugubrious Game. Because Bataille and Breton had fallen out, permission was denied to reproduce the picture, so Bataille made an annotated drawing of it. I was quite tempted to do that. So that’s the nearest I know of exposing those power relations.

R.J. Preece: Do you think more people should do this? And that more editors should allow it—to bring forth a more honest discourse?
Julian Stallabrass: I think that would be great if this happened more often. But for all of the reasons we’ve been discussing, I could see why it wouldn’t happen.

In part, this was a contingent matter forced upon us by the vacillation of this particular dealer. And another thing is that my publisher Verso is not a big art publisher. So, it’s not that they have a relationship with all these galleries which they need to maintain for years and years. They do publish art books occasionally, but I think the power relationships there are a little bit different.

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