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I love libraries. Each time I visit my library, with its grand architecture and room after room of impressive collections, I think: I own this. I live in this city, I am a taxpayer and therefore I own these books, DVDs, magazines, this building, these collections. I can come in after months of absence, and here it is, fully stocked and ready for me to use.

I was expressing this recently to a friend, and her response made me revisit my idea of ownership. She said, “The guy who goes to the library every day, who really uses the books, the rooms, the resources—the guy who knows it so well because it is integral to his life—he is the one who owns the library.”

We happened to be sitting in my friend‘s living room, the first floor of the building that she had renovated from what was a firetrap twenty years ago into a solid, comfortable, beautifully outfitted home. She looked around and said, “I know every inch of this place. That brick, that floorboard, that window casing. I have devoted attention to every detail, over a long period of time. That’s why I feel that I own it. Ownership means being involved with something, putting in an investment of energy, caring and learning. You own what you are committed to.”

If you’re like me, when you consider the subject of ownership, you are usually dealing with a specific problem or task or object. Was this stock a bad investment? Do I need liability insurance? Should I buy an iPhone? But if we think more broadly about ownership, it becomes more complex and more interesting. When I ask the question “What do you own?,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Your car? Your bank account? Or do you think of ownership in the non-physical realm of, say, friendship or faith or knowledge? Do you own a college degree? Do you see ownership as freedom, or are your possessions a burden? Does ownership imply yours vs. mine? In other words, is the term “collective ownership” an oxymoron?

If you stay with the question “What do I own?,” you see how layered and contradictory the answers can be, and how it reaches—often unconsciously—into every aspect of your life.

For years, my mother has told me that I am lucky because I have an important possession, one that I own completely: my work. By that, she does not mean a job or a particular profession or even a talent. She means a commitment to creative endeavors, to developing and producing objects and environments and to ways of thinking and looking. It is a (if not the) crucial part of my identity. I have cultivated it, grown it and I live by it. Think of your own background, your education, all the years you've spent pursuing and developing your creative identity. You have worked to make it yours.

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg was a young artist working on a series of white paintings. In a videotaped interview, he describes the story of the famous Erased de Kooning Drawing:

“I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all white. I was making drawings myself and erasing them and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg, and it was nothing. I figured out it had to begin as art, and Bill de Kooning was the best known acceptable American artist that could be indisputably considered art.

“So I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and went up and knocked on his door. ... I told him what I had in mind. ... He said, ‘OK I want it to be something I’ll miss... I want to give you something really difficult to erase.’ And he gave me something that had charcoal, oil paint, pencil, crayon... I spent a month erasing that little drawing.”

The video ends with Rauschenberg’s declaration: “It’s not a negation, it’s a celebration. It’s just... (dramatic pause) ...the idea!”

This anecdote is a good metaphor for the complexity of ownership. Did Rauschenberg take ownership by replacing a drawing with an idea—his idea? When did the drawing cease to belong to de Kooning, and instead belong to Rauschenberg? Did it belong to Rauschenberg as soon as de Kooning handed it over, and the physical piece was in Rauschenberg’s possession, and under his control? Or was there a point during the act of erasure—perhaps 51 percent erased—that the piece was no longer a “de Kooning,” but instead a “Rauschenberg”? The title is Erased de Kooning Drawing, but underneath the title, there is the name of the artist: Robert Rauschenberg.

This morning I downloaded a JPEG of Erased de Kooning Drawing for my desktop. Even though there is almost no image to be seen, I like having it. ca

© 2009 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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