Imagine selling a painting made from your own blood, sweat, and tears for $900. Not too shabby, right? Now, imagine watching that same painting sell for a whopping $85,000 and not receiving a single cent of that money. That's what happened to Robert Rauschenberg at an auction in 1973. Poor guy watched as taxi magnate Robert Scull and his wife made fortunes off their collection of artwork, which included Rauschenberg's Thaw painting. Needless to say, Rauschenberg was pissed—as are a lot of today's artists.
Unlike musicians and writers whose works are protected by U.S. copyright law, artists unfortunately do not get to enjoy that protection. Our country's copyright law only protects "published" works. A work of art such as Rauschenberg's Thaw is not published. It's simply made and then sold. Thus, once a work of art leaves an artist, he no longer receives any of the future profits. It's an outrage, to be sure. Whitney Kimball, who is an art critic based in New York, explains all of this in a recent Slate article.
For years, people have been working towards making droit de suite or artist resale royalties a right for all artists in the United States. That's what is happening right now. A bill entitled American Royalties Too or A.R.T. has recently been proposed to Congress. If passed, A.R.T. "would give artists a 5 percent cut of the profits" made from resold art. Unfortunately it would apply only to auction sales and not those made in private dealings. Still, it's a start, and it's about time too. 70 countries in the world have already embraced and implemented this system.
Kimball, who is a former studio assistant to artist William Powhida, points out it's unlikely the bill will become a law. Apparently, there's only a 2 percent prospect of [the bill] being enacted, govtrack.us found. Nonetheless, Kimball lays down all the reasons A.R.T. should be passed in her piece, recalling her time spent working with Powhida and other artists trying to make a living. "As I realized slowly after moving to New York, nothing gets easier. All my heroes are poor, and very few of my peers are saving ..." Click through to Kimball's piece on Slate for the full story.