Copyright, Market economy and the awfully unromantic flip side of style


This is the second letter dealing with style, but this time, instead of focusing on where style comes from and what it is, I would like to talk about what style is for and what it does. Often times, it seems that finding a style and sticking to it can be a daunting task for a creative, so what does this incentive of coherence and uniqueness in style aim to achieve, what is its social role for the actors of the illustration world?

Style and Copyright

I should acknowledge that deconstructing a concept like style is a tricky endeavor; the more I talk about it, the more I attribute some particularities to it; the more I end up reifying style as a “real” thing, existing in itself. This is part of the nature of style too, it is called a style ontology, meaning that “the cultural and legal notion that things such as styles exist and have specific properties”(Wilf, 2014). According to Wilf (an anthropologist working on creativity), the flip side of the style ontology is copyright. An idea that we can find during 18th century debates about whether copyright should be a fundamental right of the author, ” […] the proponents of copyright responded that the property claimed was neither the physical book nor the ideas communicated by it but something else, an entity consisting of style and sentiment combined.” (Rose, 1993 : 109). Before diving deep into this statement, let’s briefly define copyright.

Today, we tend to think of copyright and intellectual property as a natural right of the author, but as Mark Rose (1993) explains :
“copyright, the practice of securing marketable rights in texts [or any type of artwork] that are treated as commodities is a specifically modern institution, the creature of the printing press, the individualization of authorship in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and the development of the advanced marketplace society in the seventeenth an eighteenth centuries.”

The nature of copyright is first and foremost economic and the XVIII century debates I referred to mostly involved booksellers, who had much to lose from a limited copyright and broader rights for authors. Style became a proof of authorship, and therefore, a way for authors to make money from their work. Like two sides of the same coin, style and copyright create the possibilities for the existence of each other. Copyright gives a legal framework through which style can create value (by allowing to sue plagiarists for example), and the idea of a style provides the artist with a legitimate proof of authorship (“this is my work, this my style”).

Quick recap dear reader:
  • Discourses of style and copyright emerge roughly at the same period;
  • they build upon romantic ideas of creativity in order to grant economic and legal rights to authors;

Since copyright and style are so linked, it may be worth talking about style in economic terms rather than artistic ones. A bit of a disclaimer here, looking at the economy of style doesn’t mean to reduce style as an economic transaction. My objective is merely to shed light on another side of style.

The market of style / the style of market

As we just saw, as early as the XVIII century, style was presented as a tool to prove the authorship of an artist and therefore secure income from his/her artwork. But style is linked to the market in many more ways. I would like to talk here about two of them, (1) the constraints of the market of illustration onto aesthetic features, and (2) the way certain styles become naturalized as belonging to certain economic niches.

Illustration is a commercial art, we deal with clients every day and are getting paid (most of the time) in exchange for the use of our artwork. These clients have an agenda of their own — time and budget constraints that stem from the particularities of their industry. A weekly magazine will have shorter deadlines than a design agency working on an ad campaign for example. These constraints are not anecdotical parameters that only affect our work life balance as freelance workers, they also permeate the qualitative aspect of our work, by allowing or discouraging certain practices.

If I’m used to work on short deadlines, with potentially a lot of rounds of revisions on the final artwork as is often the case in editorial work, can someone who has a very intricate and detailed style be as competitive as another illustrator whose work is made of simple, digitally drawn shapes? The changes in the printed magazine industry have moved a lot of content to online platforms, which allows, for example, the use of animation in more and more illustrations. Inevitably, this creates a gap between illustrators working with traditional media, and the ones working fully digitally in terms of possibility.

The second link I see between style and economy is the one created through what we can call a process of naturalization. Naturalization occurs when something becomes so very often associated with something else that, overtime, we come to believe these two things are and have always been related.

The best example is probably the recent tweet of an art director about her bemusement upon receiving “cutesy/friendly utopian flat aesthetic” illustrations portfolios for their leftist magazine. In this statement, we can clearly see the naturalization of certain aesthetic features into being part of, or in this case, being excluded from a particular political orientation. And we humans do that all the time, we do know that there is nothing intrinsically neoliberal about flat shapes and bright colours, nor is there anything naturally radical or punk about a shaky lines with dark colours. But somehow, we expect certain environments to use certain style of illustrations. But beyond the mere expectations of what certain market sectors look like, these environments, whether it is a punk concert or a big social media company, come with different budgets.

In that sense, your style becomes a key to access different market niches, some being very lucrative, other less. And your work can look like a certain market, just like a market can look like it was illustrated by the same person’s style.

Selling out/Styling out

By now I start to feel like I’m depicting an artist’s worst nightmare, a world devoid of creative freedom, where creatives are highly pragmatic marketers strategizing every aspect of their work in order to maximize profit. This is not what I’m saying. I merely want to reframe the discussion around style by incorporating these deeply economic aspects that to me, are part of the fabric of style, and have always been, for worse but also for better. What I find damageable is the idea that we, as commercial artists, can exist in a capitalist world without understanding how this economic model impacts our work.

The pressure we put on young artists’ style is enormous, I remember discussions in art schools about some artists “selling-out” as if art and money were opposites. But these romantic expectations about creative work are completely unrealistic in our contemporary society and eventually can become toxic to illustrators trying to navigate a new economy with outdated conceptual notions.

Thinking of the economic bearings of style, or its distributed nature like discussed in the previous letter, can help us increase our agency as main actors within our own industry. Illustration is a fundamental player in the creative world and it’s only through developing a solid critical and reflexive understanding of our practice and its history that we will be able to stand for our rights and create even better work. And I believe defining our own tools, like “style”, in more complex, inclusive and healthy terms, can help us do that.

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Further readings

Rose, Mark. Authors and owners: The invention of copyright. Harvard University Press, 1993.
Wilf, Eitan. “Semiotic dimensions of creativity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014): 397–412.
Woodmansee, Martha. The author, art, and the market: Rereading the history of aesthetics. Columbia University Press, 1994.