When The Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turn Pro

My first professional article, “ How To Copyright Michelangelo,” has just appeared online at The Register. Thanks to the persistent efforts of El Reg editor Andrew Orlowski, I finally managed to bang out this article for publication. I showed Andrew a draft of this story as a blog article, he said I should polish it up and submit it to El Reg. So I immediately got to work: I sat on the article for over two years.

As I contemplated the subject over that time, it seemed to expand in scope, I could have written a whole book on the related topics, and maybe I will, someday. But I had to put together something less ambitious, and Andrew emailed me one day and said just take a crack at it and get me a draft in three days. Ouch. So I pulled it together, such as it was, and submitted it with the apology that I was sure I could do a better job if I spent another two years on it.

Andrew would occasionally needle me about what was taking so long, and I would joke about how I didn’t want to give up my amateur status. Professional journalism turns writing from blog blabbing into hard work, and I am averse to hard work. My efforts to produce this article even inspired a long bout of Writer’s Block, which was why I procrastinated for years. It’s ironic, because I used to be a Hollywood writer’s consultant, my specialty was setting up those newfangled word processors for screenwriters, and in the process, reworking their neurotic writing habits to eliminate Writer’s Block. And now here I was, stuck in the same old neurotic habits.

Just as the deadline was issued, I bumped into a woman who was a writer’s coach. I said I might be in need of her services, how does that work? She said her usual form of coaching was you emailed her your draft, then phoned her and she’d tell you to sit and write for an hour, then you’d mail her the new work so she could see you worked for an hour. I thought about that, and it occurred to me, hell, I could sit and write for an hour by myself, why wasn’t I? So I did. I told her about it later, I said her coaching must be effective because her remark was just what I needed to get moving. She laughed.

The subject of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling has long interested me, I worked at the Getty Trust back in the 1980s when the Getty Conservation Institute did the restoration project. It was the talk of the office, especially when Vanity Fair magazine ran an article that criticized the restoration. Agreeing with the Vanity Fair critics, that the GCI might be removing a charcoal/glue wash applied by Michelangelo, was tantamount to professional suicide at the Getty. But I didn’t know that, and I blundered right ahead, publicly agreeing that the restoration could destroy original work by Michelangelo. Unsurprisingly, my contract was not renewed. Oops. But my personal reminisces had to go, they are appropriate for my personal blog, where I talk endlessly about myself, but were not appropriate for serious journalism.

Other material didn’t make the cut, I had a subplot about the restoration of the famous Holbein painting “The Ambassadors.” I’ve written about this painting before in a different context, it was one of my first blog articles, almost 6 years ago. The restoration of these major artworks costs millions and takes years, my fear is that changes to the interpretation of copyright law might eliminate economic incentives to undertake major restoration projects, while those works continue to deteriorate. And at the same time, I am grateful that those copyright laws allow me to profit from my works as an artist, and even as a writer.

2 thoughts on “When The Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turn Pro”

  1. And a first rate article it was, too! I am a trained art historian, and remembering being amused at all those folks who complained about the sistine ceiling restoration at the time. (Just wait til they get their hands on the Mona Lisa, possibly the filthiest famous painting in the world).
    You raised plenty of important and interesting points. Something will have to happen with this ‘copyrighted reproduction’ thang, or Terry Gilliam and/or the BBC will be paying through the nose for using a copyrighted reproduction of Bronzino’s foot of cupid in every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
    I might add that it was your article on the Register (one of my favorite news hangouts) which drew me here in the first place. Now I have subscribed to your RSS feed, but if you can wangle more articles at the Register, it would be great.
    [Thanks for your kind remarks. I am especially pleased at the comments on my article at El Reg, the commenters raised all the points I had to gloss over for the sake of brevity. –Charles]

  2. It would be just fine as is (no restoration). Simply repaint a picture to copyright rather than copyrighting something refinished.
    Tell this to a furniture collector after the table has been revarnished that it is now the painters property.
    Simply put – greed won out as art is stolen from the public and artists wonder why they aren’t being paid after these stunts.
    [Actually, parts of the Sistine Chapel ceiling were cracking and threatening to collapse, so there were significant architectural repairs behind the frescos too. It really was necessary to do the restoration work. –Charles]

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