How do you get money from art you can’t sell?

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology skeleton display of teenage child

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology skeleton display of teenage child

I like photography. And I like skeletons.

However, not many people want to own pictures of skeletons. Not real ones. Many people enjoy the stylised skulls of goths and Mexico. But real skulls? From real people?

The ethics of displaying human remains is complex. We have built a sensitive society who never see death and collude to rarely discuss it, which gives little emotional preparation for when bereavement or our own mortality (inevitably) happens.

Museums can display skeletons, but within an educational context and with sensitivity, and where people can avoid them and will not come across them by accident. In contrast, bodies displayed for art are often seen as garish and voyeuristic, as the Body Worlds displays continue to cause in debate.

I can photograph skeletons in museums, and I can display those photographs. I must acknowledge the museum as the source of the image, and not sell those images for profit. Surprisingly, I can purchase skeletons too. Ones over 100 years old have confusing legal status in private ownership, but are often in disrepair, deserving care and attention. Which is great for me as a photographer. However, I must decide what is ethical, and what I should do with the photos: Should people be confronted with images of human skeletons without due warning or art context? Would it be ethical to sell these images?

Phrenology image

Phrenology image

I am fortunate that all these questions occurred in my final stages of an OCA photography degree. It actively encourages students to face up to ethical debates, as well as distribute their work for feedback and comment. Through my college work, I have met a community of people working in areas of death, bereavement and ethics. It was these contacts that answered concerns about context and ethical display of human remains, as well as responsible handling of skeletons. Working with solicitors, funeral directors, hospice staff, archaeologists, museum staff and even human brain researchers, I have learnt a lot about ethical treatment of the dead.

My solution to the difficulty of displaying my work in an appropriate ethical context has been to co-organise an event to make that context: Dying for Life is a festival of ideas, talks, my art, demonstrations and discussions about death, happening in Cambridge on the 13 May 2017.

With the vision and the collaborations in place, it took surprisingly little work to find sponsors to cover venue costs. From the OCA course materials, I also felt encouraged to apply for support using public funding from Arts Council England, not only to display my current work, but paying for my time to make new images for the day. I received grant approval this week!

That is how I made money from art I can’t sell.

I am free to use my images to evoke debate, thought, to engage with people and help them confront a difficult topic, with the view to enriching their lives, and continue to explore what excites my interest.

What would you do?

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Image Credit: Susan Elaine Jones, 2016


Also published on Medium.

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8 comments for “How do you get money from art you can’t sell?

  1. 14 February 2017 at 10:07 am

    Brilliant news Sue, well done and such great work as well! It has certainly been a roller-coaster of a ride getting the work to this stage. Congratulations, I feel a trip to Cambridge coming on.

  2. Doug Bell
    14 February 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Hi Sue, What an interesting post. I must say that the display on an old/ancient skeleton would never have crossed my mind but would have thought twice about a recent one. I suppose one is far more removed from the ancient.
    I have images I took in Cambodia where the remains of those killed by the Khmer Rouge are open displayed. Some showing bullet holes in the skull etc. I must admit it was quite shocking, especially as while you walk around the paths you are often walking on human bones.
    Your post is really enlightening and show just how well you have addressed the problems that I for one have never considered.
    Well done

  3. 14 February 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Super variety of work – good luck with the exhibition. Well done on getting the funding.

  4. tanya thomas
    15 February 2017 at 9:42 am

    A thought provoking post. I am thinking about links between art and archaeology although am not sure how to use it within a painting project yet. I would be very interested to see your work in Cambridge please do publicise the details.

  5. 17 February 2017 at 11:17 am

    Congratulations on your forthcoming exhibition, Sue.

    You raise some interesting questions over ethics. I think where skeletons are concerned, recency is the most relevant factor. Not many people would like to see their relatives remains turned into art, although, on the other hand, many people seem to have willingly donated their bodies to Gunther von Hagens for his Body Worlds exhibitions.

    On the matter of making money from the art: would the museums from whence the exhibits came want to sell prints of the work paying a fee for each piece sold?

    • 17 February 2017 at 11:32 am

      Julia,

      Thanks for the comments. Yes, recent human remains have strong protection in this country – anything less than 100 years old. But interestingly that is a rolling 100 years, not an absolute, which suggests to me a worry of relatives/friends rather than some absolute change in ethical standards at a certain date.
      Body Worlds is a very interesting case – both because it is perceived as art, and also from its dubious beginnings to having a very long waiting list of donors who can see the value and interest of becoming part of his work. I find it amusing that people who protest about it often aren’t aware of the work for Honoré Fragonard, whose work is a strong inspiration for Body Worlds, and has been on display in Paris for 200 years.
      As to whether museums would take the risk on selling prints of my work, I hope to investigate that in the future, but I think I need a proven track record to persuade them it is worth the investment to put alongside their array of postcards etc.

      • 17 February 2017 at 2:55 pm

        Goodness! I see what you mean about Fragonard’s work – very obviously a big influence on Body Worlds.

        Just had a browse around your website – fascinating work.

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