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Publisher's Note: What is an image worth?

6 minutes to read

Pub Note2

An image is a restitution to immediacy. It’s the alluring surface where the appreciation of a “likeness” springs into mind. This pleasure resists the passage of time. The faster a “likeness” is perceived, the more the image reflects back an experience we yearn for—the feeling that what can be immediately grasped is identical with what we want it to be: the essence of an idea or intuition we hold. The enchantment of what can be comprehended at once is the fundamental character of any image.

The opaque nature of reality compounds our insatiable desires for images. The need to genuinely recognize our identity and place in the world feels as impossible to achieve as it in truth may be. We starve from an impoverished reality that provides nothing solid or substantive and mistake what is missing with what must be necessary.

And yet the need remains. It gnaws at the mind like a hunger that presses us to find what makes life unjust or intolerable, just as it also spurs us to seek out what will truly bring joy and contentment. They are flipsides of the same want: a desire to discover the essence of what is harmful or pleasing in reality that is as clear and present as this hunger feels in us.

We remain unsatisfied. The old ways of discerning essence from appearance no longer works except as a semblance of a philosophical tradition that once masqueraded as a science, or worse: an ontology. The new ways are no better, repackaging the dispiriting need to adapt to the arbitrary pressures of authorities as new kinds of freedom. The notion of the “constellation”, once considered a model for decentralizing power and influence, exists now as digital and social networks that are as monolithic and oppressive as the old monopolies. Reality enshrouds us like a cloud of unknowing.

A society that governs without transparency does so to exploit those in the dark. The opacity serves aesthetic purposes: it hides the operations that perpetuate the abuse and ridicules the notion that time is an indispensible element for truly understanding how to appreciate or change our shared reality.

Our actual needs go unmet as the mystery of “what is to be done” burdens the mind and turns it against itself—it’s what fear does. It diminishes our capacity to reflect upon and tolerate what takes time to fully grasp. Whatever cannot be made out immediately is immediately made out to be unreal, ugly, inauthentic, or threatening. All of the above, usually.

When immediacy is fetishized, the image becomes prized as a form of secularized idolatry. We seek the essence of what we are deprived of in something that can literally show us anything except what we actually need.

Lady Eastlake in 1857 already foresaw the photographic image as essentially “a form of communication” that heralded a new way to connect people “of the most diverse lives, habits, and stations.” Today, images are shared at industrialized rates. The immediacy we crave to compensate for the utter lack of political and social clarity IRL is being capitalized by social media industries.

Ninety five (95) million images are uploaded every day on Instagram. 350 million photos are posted on Facebook every day.

Forms of expression like images are harvested and refined as data; used as metrics to attract investors to increase profitability; sold to third parties via their API; fed into algorithms designed to maximize advertising profits; compiled as “training sets” for artificial intelligence frameworks to further monetize what we share. An “active user” is the corporate term for livestock.

Even livestock deserves to be treated humanly. We accept this with what we eat. Why not with ourselves?

We can affirm our need for images and at the same time acknowledge how industries leverage it for profit and indirectly perpetuate the exploitative and opaque social reality that induces the need in the first place.

We should also recast how social media activity is characterized to convey its real industrial nature. “Networking” or “sharing” is as misleading as describing Monsanto’s business as “farming” or “cultivating”. Social media platforms are global publishing enterprises. Facebook made $7 billion in advertising revenue alone last year.

“Publishing” is more apt than “posting”. The concept of publishing is also more inclusive of the broader dynamics underlying the activity; the economic and social interests our images hold beyond those we share them with; the political values they express as flashpoints for wider debates; the claims they make for what ought to be valued in public life (insofar as nothing uploaded online today is technically or legally private).

In publishing, artists and writers are paid for what is published, in the form of one-time fees or royalties. The same principle should apply to social media.

We propose charging a fee to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat for every image we post. This fee is a recognition of the essential part we play in how these industries profit. It also functions as a small “surcharge” that acknowledges their complicity in maintaining political and economic systems that continue to erode our capacity for critical reflection, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to the “rush” of cheap immediacy that we get to get from images on social media.

We suggest charging $0.057 per uploaded image, which is 1% of Instagram’s most recently reported average “CPM”, which is the cost per 1000 impressions to run an ad on the app. This can be done with a simple online invoice that itemizes the images posted on your account on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis. We also suggest a comprehensive count of images you have already posted online, and sending an invoice for past postings.

Publishing in the art world echoes exploitative aspects of social media. Institutional and commercial publishing in contemporary art largely rely on—and sometimes demand—artists release the rights of their images for free. The “acclaimative” value of being published is assumed to be enough for the artist.

Practices can change. In virtually all areas of culture conversations about the wide spectrum of inequalities afflicting social life have gained new urgency. We are artist publishers who want to extend this conversation to publishing in the arts. Our experience suggests artists are generally not aware of the political economy of publishing on paper or screen.

The “immediacy” of being published is arguably a more essential need for those whose images and rights are at stake. We have suggested however that what is perceived as “immediate” and “essential” is really a “screen image” that compensates for thinking deprived of substance and solidity, which the mind requires if it is to reflect and feel with any real consequence.

It is in the spirit of this regard that we are publishing a price guide for image rights for artists. Exposure and public debate—if not acclaim—are worthy aspirations for any artist at any station of their career. Our wager is that by giving artists basic guidelines for understanding the value of their images within the political economy of actually existing arts publishing, those conversations, debates, and forms of exposure will deepen and become as lasting in culture as we have always hoped they would.


Publisher's notes are opinion pieces of a topical or esoteric nature written by Badlands Unlimited or friends and authors of Badlands.