In this post, I justify the unusual beliefs of a fictional race of people about property and ownership, and in the process uncover a special connection between artists and their artwork.
In the Harry Potter novels, Goblins are a race of intelligent creatures that coexist with wizards and are known for their skill as metal-smiths. Wizards and Goblins have had many disputes throughout history concerning the ownership of goblin-made artefacts, chiefly because of their differing views on what makes a person the rightful owner of an object
Bill: “You don’t understand, Harry, nobody could understand unless they have lived with goblins. To a goblin, the rightful and true master of any object is the maker, not the purchaser. All goblin-made objects are, in goblin eyes, rightfully theirs.”
Harry: “But if it was bought —”
Bill: “— then they would consider it rented by the one who had paid the money. They have, however, great difficulty with the idea of goblin-made objects passing from wizard to wizard. You saw Griphook’s face when the tiara passed under his eyes. He disapproves. I believe he thinks, as do the fiercest of his kind, that it ought to have been returned to the goblins once the original purchaser died. They consider our habit of keeping goblin-made objects, passing them from wizard to wizard without further payment, little more than theft.”
Here’s what we can conclude about what the Goblins believe:
- Whoever creates an object is its rightful owner and will remain so till his death.
- The object cannot be bought, only rented out.
- When the renter dies, the object must be returned to the creator or his heirs.
Can we rationalize these beliefs? To do this, we need to find a line of reasoning that can justify such a system of ownership for Goblin-made objects and also explain why it wouldn’t apply to ordinary objects.
Before we begin, we need to make some assumptions about the Harry Potter universe. Firstly, we’ll assume that Goblin-made objects are works of art, in the sense that they are difficult to make and cannot be mass-produced, making each object a unique product of the creator’s skill and creativity. A second assumption is that objects such as swords, helmets, jewellery and utensils are all commonplace and widely available, but their Goblin-made equivalents are rare and are renowned for their artistic value.
To kick off our line of reasoning, I need to make some bold claims about art in general. While I can’t prove these claims, I can find some context for them in the opinions of an artist: Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), an Indian painter of Hungarian-Indian parentage known for combining European post-Impressionist oil-painting techniques with the colours and forms of Indian traditional art such as the Ajanta frescoes and the miniature paintings of the Mughal period.
We start with a question: When does an artist consider a work finished? When she is satisfied with it, it seems reasonable to answer. When creating art, an artist’s primary aim (assuming she isn’t constrained by time or money) is to reach the point at which the artwork satisfies her sense of what is beautiful, or her artistic taste.
Amrita Sher-Gil on the Ajanta frescoes
“Modern art has led me to the comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical but I know for certain that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have realised that a fresco from Ajanta [..] is worth more than a whole Renaissance.”
On Vincent Van Gogh
Do you know that picture of his, the cornfield with black crows? It always puts me into a state of violent emotion and divine restlessness. In spite of the fact that till now my special favourite has been Gauguin, I sometimes feel that Van Gogh was the greater of the two.”
It’s natural to think that artists have a highly developed taste for different kinds of art, evolved from their encounters with various other artists, styles and works.
On Mughal miniature paintings
“The Mughals have taught me a lot. Looked at rightly, the Mughal portraits can teach one everything […] that matters. Subtle yet intense, keenness of form, acute and detached somewhat ironical observation, all the things I needed most at the time […]”
It follows then, that while creating art, when an artist tries to satisfy her sense of what is beautiful, she is strongly influenced by works of art that have impressed her; she incorporates into her own art elements that she likes, builds upon elements that have potential and blends elements from different styles of art.
From “Remembering Amrita Sher-Gil”, Tehelka
Amrita was acerbic in her criticism of the Indian art of her times, dismissive of the Bengal and Bombay schools. She thought Indian art was impoverished by its “cheap emotional appeal” and had “committed the mistake of feeding almost exclusively on the tradition of mythology and romance”.
From “Hamari Amrita”, Deccan Herald
[She] urged her fellow artists not to cling to “traditions that were once vital, sincere and splendid and which are now merely empty formulae”, and not to imitate fifth rate western art slavishly.
She set out to [..] employ “a new technique, my own technique”, which [would be] “not technically Indian, in the traditional sense of the word, yet be fundamentally Indian in spirit.”
The artist also responds to the trends of the time, countering those that she does not like by deliberately differentiating her art from theirs and using her work to make a statement on what art should be like.
All of this, taken together, gives us a new way of looking at art. A work of art is like a photograph: It captures the artist’s influences at the time it was created and her reaction to those influences. It is a record of her artistic taste, frozen in time. Collectively, an artist’s works represent to the world her taste in art as it changed over the years and preserve her creativity for future generations. It seems intuitive then, that an artist has a much greater interest in her work being preserved and respected than a carpenter who makes ordinary chairs and sells them for use. (It is a different matter, of course, if the carpenter creates artistic woodwork).
Treating art as an ordinary commodity doesn’t adequately respect the special importance that an artwork has to the artist. When an artist decides to sell his artwork, the price is determined by his own need for money and what buyers think of his work at that time. Once he sells it, the artwork may permanently remain outside his control, since he no longer has any legal right over it. He cannot prevent it from being resold and may not be able to track who currently owns it, whom it is resold to or where it is stored or displayed. It may even be lost, damaged or defaced. He has no power to ensure that his work be preserved safely or treated with the respect it deserves. (Reading between the lines, we can guess that one of the reasons Goblins don’t like wizards passing on Goblin-made objects to their descendants is that they end up being owned by people who do not treat the objects with the respect they deserve and are incapable of appreciating its artistic value.)
We can see how these problems can be addressed by extending Goblin ideas of ownership to include artists and their artwork: An artist retains ownership of his artwork throughout his life. A work of art cannot be bought, only rented for a previously agreed period of time. The renter will be responsible for safeguarding the object and displaying it (or using it) in a manner specified by the artist in the agreement. If the renter dies, the artwork returns to the artist. The artist can choose, in his will, for the ownership of his artworks to pass on to someone else after his death. The person who inherits the ownership can also lease the work, collect rent and pass on his rights. In this way, an artist (whether Goblin or human) can balance his need to earn from his art with his desire for his work to be preserved and respected, even beyond his lifetime.
- It could be said that not allowing an artist to sell his work restricts his economic freedom by preventing him from earning the full value of his work on the first sale. It would also remove the possibility of speculators providing funding for art. Of course, this doesn’t seem like an issue that would cause the Goblins much concern.
- The idea that an artist has an intimate connection to his work has parallels in the legal concept of ‘Droit moral’ (Moral Rights) which has roots in European traditions of intellectual property law. Countries that recognise Moral Rights grant an artist certain rights over his work that persist even after it has been sold to someone else. In India, the law recognizes an artist’s right to claim authorship of his work and restrain it from being distorted, mutilated or modified.
- In 2012, India Today reported on an incident involving ‘Flight of Steel’, a 30-foot open air sculpture created by Jatin Das, an internationally acclaimed artist, for Bhilai Steel Plant. 16 years after it was installed there, the artist found out that the Plant management had recently uprooted, dismantled and shifted the sculpture to a nearby zoo (to accommodate a construction project) without informing him.
“I rushed to the zoo and found bits and pieces of the sculpture dumped as scrap at two different places,” Das said, [condemning] the action which he terms “vandalism” of his project.”
- A representative of the Plant said
“This remains our project and is owned by us. We paid for this and so have a right to shift it.”
- The Delhi High Court agreed with Das and condemned the act and held that such distortion, modification and mutilation of the sculpture was in violation of his moral rights as provided under Section 58 of the Copyright Act, 1957.
- Palmer, T. (2005), Are patents and copyrights morally justified? The philosophy of property rights and ideal objects, in A.D. Moore, ed., ‘Information Ethics. Privacy, Property, and Power’ , pp. 123-168 .
- Sarraute, R.. (1968). Current Theory on the Moral Right of Authors and Artists under French Law. The American Journal of Comparative Law, 16(4), 465–486. http://doi.org/10.2307/838764
- Goblin. The Harry Potter Wiki. http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Goblin
- Dalmia, Yashodhara. (2006). Amrita Sher-Gil : a life. New Delhi ; New York : Penguin, Viking
- Tiwari, N. (2013, October 4). Remembering Amrita Sher-Gil. Tehelka. http://www.tehelka.com/2013/10/remembering-amrita-sher-gil/
- Hamari Amrita. (2011, September 3). Deccan Herald. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/188180/hamari-amrita/
- Amrita Sher-Gil: The First Female Artist of Indian Modern Art. (2015, March 28). LifeStalker. http://www.lifestalker.com/amrita-sher-gil-the-first-woman-of-indian-modern-art/
- Khan, S. (2012, April 1). Iconic sculpture Flight of Steel at the gates of Bhilai removed to make way for flyover. India Today. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/sculpture-flight-of-steel-bhilai-removed-jatin-das/1/182548.html
- Sundara Rajan, Mira T. “India: A Place Where Moral Rights Matter.” The 1709 Blog., 18 June 2012. http://the1709blog.blogspot.in/2012/06/india-place-where-moral-rights-matter.html