Separating the art from the artist

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Should the partner of a creative person be entitled to a share of their creative copyright, asks Lisa Scott.

Lisa Scott
Lisa Scott
Last week an acquaintance discovered a copy of my first book, Travels with my Economist, in a bookshop in Christchurch, knocked down to a fantastic price of $19.99. "Can’t resist a bargain," she said.

I had no idea there were any still about, apart from the boxful in the loo, which I rescued from a pulping. Travels is a book about a woman who goes to India and falls in love with New Zealand. It’s essentially the diary of someone losing the run of themselves in 45-degree heat while men the size of 12-year-old Kiwi girls pinch her bottom. There’s an economist in it.

Travels is far from my best work, but it is funny if you’re not me. My best work has always come from a painful place, the zone of full body blushes, 3am fear sweats. Those times when life takes you down a peg or two - when you turn and face yourself and go, "oh God, you moron". I’m not a tortured artist, more a victim of my own foolishness, pride or rash judgements.

The myth of the tortured artist springs from the idea that creative people need to suffer before they can make anything good. Van Gogh suffered from debilitating seizures, an absinthe addiction and anxiety, but he created post-impressionism. Picasso nearly died in an earthquake when he was 3, Frankenstein was inspired by a volcanic eruption and Mickey Mouse was created as an act of revenge.

Someone once asked me if the titular character helped write my book. This kind of thing used to happen more than you’d think. Men would ask whether my boyfriend helped write my columns, too. I think it had a lot to do with how nice I used to be, and how self-deprecating women are generally, because we don’t want men to fear us, or people to think we’re an a**hat.

If you are a heterosexual female creative there seems to be the notion (among eejits) that your work wouldn’t be possible or any good without your lover’s contribution. That your talent requires them to spark it. Yes, the people in your life influence your art - but so does the weather and a hangover, and I’m not giving last night’s Fickle Mistress a muse credit.

Should the partner of a creative person be entitled to a share of their creative copyright? It’s hard enough scraping a living together if you work in the arts - to benefit from the sweat of angst’s labour in any other way than simple delight in their success seems morally wrong. Yet this is exactly what a New Zealand High Court judge has just permitted.

Blenheim artist Sirpa Elise Alalaakkola split from one Mr Palmer in 2017 and he has been dragging her through legal proceedings for four years now. After she thought her studio had been burgled, he admitted he took paintings as leverage. Originally, a ruling was made that the Copyright Act vested copyright to the creator of the artworks, and as her skill existed before the relationship, the copyright could not be relationship property. Palmer appealed. In a precedent-setting decision that has unsettling repercussions for anyone who writes, paints or makes art of any kind, a New Zealand High Court judge ruled last month the paintings and copyright were relationship property.

Palmer said gaining copyright was not a control tactic, and despite the fact that "advice from intellectual property specialists suggested the copyright alone could be in the millions", "I’m not after the money".

Although Palmer does plan to copy the works and sell them, devaluing anything Sirpa paints in the future.

Can you imagine Picasso being forced into the same position? If this was a male artist, a Sydney, a Frizzell, a Foley, do you think his ex would have a snowball’s chance in hell of claiming something she did not make, copying it and then flogging it off like a cheap T-shirt? Poor Sirpa, she doesn’t need to suffer to make her brightly coloured art. The court should stop torturing her.


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