Beyond “Best Practices”; Dignity for Our Artists

I spend a lot of time looking at Unitarian Universalist congregational Facebook pages. I spend at least an hour a day looking at the social media for districts and affiliated groups (like CUUPs). I do a lot of research about what topics are being discussed and what videos or blog posts people are sharing. One thing that always grabs my attention, every single time I see it: a piece of art made by someone I know that has been posted without credit to the artist. I stop what I am doing, and I comment, because I would want someone to do the same for me.

I know it can be hard, things being shared so easily, to lose track of how important that is. If you are just sharing the image that someone else posted, then it isn’t even a big deal; the information is still attached to the original. When you download an image, though, and post it to your congregation’s Facebook page, or you put it on your website without checking the license or even bothering to name the original artist, you are breaking with our covenant to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person. More troubling, you could very well be breaking the law.

You see, every piece of art created belongs to its creator until the creator transfers ownership to someone else. That is the law, and common sense as far as I am concerned. Anyone can appreciate the art, if they have the chance, but they cannot control it. They cannot keep the artist from choosing how it is displayed or when it is sold. They most certainly cannot claim the work as their own. When  you display art on social media, without permission from the artist, you are doing one or more of these things. When you do so without credit to the artist, you are effectively claiming ownership of the art.

This reduces the artist to a resource, rather than a creative spirit who produced something, and it reduces the art to a consumable product, rather than a valuable creation. It doesn’t matter if the art in question is a poem, a drawing, or a photograph. If we want to honor the worth and dignity of the creator and the value of the art, we should acknowledge the right of the artist to choose how their work is shared, and we should always seek to give them credit, in whatever form they ask for it, before we share their work. So many creators on the Internet only ask to be named, possibly with a link back to their own site or store, so that people can know who they are. Even if they are selling art, many of them are glad to have some publicity, if you contact them and ask how they would like it done. It shows them that, even if you can’t pay them for the work, you respect their craft and what they have added to the world by their efforts.

I’d like you to think about always paying for art in some way. Admittedly, some art is expensive; a painting is singular in the world and a well crafted one is valuable for that reason alone. Some art is given away freely, in order to add beauty or wisdom to the world, or to challenge some idea. Does that mean that, because it is freely given, that it is worthless? Clearly, people with money are willing to pay a lot of money for the works of certain street artists who put their mark on the world in secret and walk away. I think UUs would agree that there is something wrong with that system, where art is given not the world, but kept for an individual; where money is made, but the artist gets none of it. Value, though, is about more than money. By giving credit you are valuing the person who gave you something. By thanking them you honor that the work has changed you in some way. By seeking out the artist you make a statement about their worth and dignity. It says, “We honor your contribution to the world, and we want to share it in a way that respects you.”

This is not limited to graphics and visual art. Crediting quotes is important, too. If you copy part of a sermon, as we often do, make sure you link back to the original, if it was published on-line, or give the name of the writer. If you are going to lift more than a line or two, as we did with the words of Rev. Paul Hull recently (for our current Fb cover image), it is a good idea to contact the writer and make sure they  don’t object to your use. It is a courtesy that shows them you appreciate their work, and consider it a thing of value. For many ministers, that is enough once the rent is paid. Other writers may welcome the publicity for their work, assuming a link is also provided.

There are a lot of Unitarian Universalist artists and writers who give their work away via the internet. At I Am UU, we try hard to make sure they get the credit they deserve, and when we post something, we try to make sure that it is something we have permission to offer. We have shared things in the past, things posted to other pages, that we’ve had to remove because we learned that the page that claimed ownership by posting was not authorized to do so. We’ve made apologies on the page for that kind of mistake before. Our staff includes artists who give us original works to share, as well as writers who create on our behalf. This is an issue very dear to us.

So, please, make sure that you credit the artists whose work you love enough to share. Make sure that they are ok with you sharing their work. Acknowledge that creating art is a valuable thing for that person to do, and that you would like them to keep doing it. Give thanks, and remember that some people live by their art the same way that a carpenter lives by their craft. When you see something that inspires you, be gracious. When you can, be generous. At the very least, though, be courteous, and make sure that you tell your audience who it is that made this thing that you want to share.

It doesn’t hurt to look and see if they have something for sale, either. “Starving artist” isn’t just a stereotype.

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