Most artworks have a legal status as copyrighted works, as designs, or at the very least as insured objects. Some, such as works by Carey Young, are legal documents themselves. The law provides a kind of ontology for artworks. But unreproducable artworks are more interesting when the unreproducability is a technical rather than a legal effect.
Artworks often have certificates of authenticity, and contracts and guarantees were the stuff of 1960s conceptualism. Sales documents are important in establishing provenance, and recipts are important when filing tax returns. But usually the paperwork of an artwork is of peripheral interest at best.
Alternative licenses are not part of the legal orthodoxy of society though. They are a signal of dissent (or at least a desire for reform). They are political to a degree. Applying one to a work is a small political act.
The political commitments of artists are more often a cause of embarrassment than an interesting component of the work even genetically. For every David a dozen surrealist members of the communist party. And a David. The political commitment of artists is too often empty, and empty-headed, gestures. “Career building bullshit that cares” as Art & Language said.
The difference with alternative licenses is that art is directly implicated in “The Copyfight”. This is not political volunteerism, these are issues that actually affect art. The production and consumption of art is part of the debate. Warhol, Koons, Garnett and others have all been bitten by copyright. Christo, the owners of a work by Kapoor, and others have all bitten others with copyright.
In an open society it is vital that we not allow the closing off of artistic freedom through the legal means that alternative licences are a protection against. We cannot force Magnum photographers or toy manufacturers to adopt the same licence, but we can use our own adoption as a reason why they should. We can take a stand for our principles that affects us for a change.
Commitment is bad for art because it limits artistic freedom. But the copyfight is commitment to artistic freedom. And alternative licenses are a tactic in the copyfight. Using one is a sign of commitment to a non-artistic cause, a limit on artistic freedom. But that non-artistic cause is the cause of removing limits on artistic freedom.
This is reflexive, or at least a kind of loop. It has something to do with the genetic character of the work and its aesthetics. Where a work is concerned with aesthetic freedom, and few modernist or postmodernist works are not, the licence of the artwork may not be part of the visual aesthetics of the work but it will impinge on the experience and effect of it.
The reception of a work and what is known about it can affect what is seen in it. Nelson Goodman uses a work’s status as a fake as an example of this, and cites elements of fake Vermeers that are obvious to us now but that weren’t obvious when they were first seen. DJ Spooky describes remixes as “interrogation of meaning”. The licensing of a work can prevent its reproduction and thereby its analysis and discussion of it, and can prevent remixing of it, to the point where its content or meaning are unrealized or unextended. This is an aesthetic loss for the work.
The licence of an artwork is interesting because even if it cannot make a work look better it can make the work be seen better and can lead to the creation of better work. This is not incidental to art or to artworks, it is part of the very conditions of their existence. The canvas of a painting isn’t interesting until you wonder what would happen if it wasn’t there.