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The Court of Non-Entities

Traditional law is profoundly anthropocentric. Over the centuries, many may have called the law an ass, but it is only recently that non-humans have had the opportunity to present their causes in a court of law. The environmental movement here leads the way in laying charges against corporations whose reckless actions directly cause suffering to animals and the earth’s resources. Yet our emphathy for animal suffering is still insignificant compared to our identification with characters whose lives are confined the covers of a book or a screen. Do they have rights? Remember in Mary Shelley’s novel, when the monster confronts his creator, Victor Frankenstein. Remember its words: "The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defense before they are condemned. Listen to me, Frankenstein."

Recently we have heard a similar call from the creator of Helen Demidenko. Her mortal host, Helen Darville, has publicly complained that while evidence against her was being collected as though she were facing criminal charges, she has been denied the presumption of innocence. She says, `But then, inquisitions and witch-burnings don’t adhere to the same rules as ordinary courts of law.’

There are courts for all kinds of matters: Court of Petty Sessions, the Children’s Court, and now even a Sports Court. Why not a Court of Fictional Entities? As cultural crimes, artistic hoaxes certainly have their victims, not only the editors whose credibility is damaged, but also the readers who suffer what has begun to be known these days as `intellectual rape’. If the long arm of the law is to be anything other than a phantom limb, then let justice prevail in matters of the mind as well as the body or the wallet. In April this year, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne will be hosting an exhibition titled How Say You, which invites visitors to act as judges towards work by eight artists, some real, some fictional, but all overstepping their artistic license. Accompanying How Say You during its tour around Australia will be a Court of Fictional Entities, a hypothetical-cum-moot court designed to hear arguments for and against the rights of artistic personae.

What might those arguments be?

Prosecution: False pretences

Let’s start the ball rolling with the case for the prosecution. Culture runs on its own kind of economyżan economy of honour where prizes, reviews set a value to artistic talent. Despite its occasional failings, this system serves to encourage excellence and give expression to social values. But it all hinges on individual accountability. Individual accountability is the hard currency of our culture. To give bogus identities copyright would be very much like recognising monopoly money as legitimate tender. Artistic producers, struggling at the best of times, would find their credibility deflated. And for the consumers, what kind of quality control can they expect when artists are not accountable to the products of their imagination. Fictional authors should stay where they belong--in the minds of their creators.

Defense: implied author

Let’s consider the reception of a work of art. At a fundamental level, we perceive the world as a relationship between figure and ground. While the content of a work is the focus of our attention, our predisposition towards it is largely influenced by framing conditions that precede our experience. The most critical of these is our knowledge of the person who produced the work. Can you separate the power of a Van Gogh painting, for instance, from our knowledge of the artist’s tortured life? In the past, this arrangement has been relatively unproblematic due to the romantic myth of the artist: the lone individual whose works spring naturally from a fevered imagination. As we know today, this is largely a self-serving myth, privileging the artist above other equally important cultural players, like you and I, the consumers. Too often, we’ve taken a work into our hearts only for some cultural police to come along and impound the nominated author who made our experience possible. Why can’t authorship be granted on the same conditions as a trademark.

Two Sample Cases

Copyright ę 1995 Dede Pol
Last modified 20 March 1996