Two original stories: Between storytelling and the nature of law

On 2007, the Museum of Ethnology of Hamburg decided to reimburse more than 10,000 visitors of an exhibition of the Terracotta warriors because it came to light that the figures on display weren’t ‘original’. They were mere copies of the original figures. The museum’s director at the time, Wulf Köpke explained that ‘he had agreed to the exhibition on the firm understanding that the exhibits were genuine.’ [1]

At first glance, the measure appears as correct. Why charge people to see alleged original figures when they were, in fact, fake? However, what if we think of the incident with a different narrative? What if we abandon the western tradition and analyse the work of art within its tradition?

Lisa Sarmas (Sarmas, 1994) describes legal storytelling as a methodology interested in what is excluded by the hegemonic or dominant legal narrative. By focusing on what’s structurally excluded by the dominant legal narrative, we could challenge and transform the legal system in order to make it more inclusive and responsive to real social practices. In what follows I will briefly draft the dominant narrative of law’s originality and then compare it with a counter-narrative that may help us to identify some discontinuities or exclusions made by the law that affects how we understand certain artworks such as the Terracotta Warriors.

For western law a piece of artwork is original if it is possible to find that its author has exercised some effort in its creation; if the work isn’t copied and (at least for continental law) if the work bears the imprint of the author’s personality. It is said that this account of the author, the work and originality is strongly influenced by German Romanticism, which deemed the author as he who, by applying his genius, is the unique originator of the work. To that extent, individualism and originality appear as central for the western tradition. I what matters is the genius of the author, then the only thing that matters is the unique piece of work that was made by the author. Moreover, such work is deemed as a stable and finished piece; the signature of the artist both authenticate and closures the artwork. That explains, according to Latour, this age’s obsession for the original (Latour, 2010).

Viewed from this narrative the Terracotta warriors were, in fact, mere copies. They were neither authenticated nor closured by their author’s signature. Moreover, the author of the original never touched the copies being displayed in Hamburg. Does this mean that they were not original?

Here we can introduce a counter-narrative. Byung Chul-Han (2017) explains the oriental notion of originality as a deconstruction of an invariable and unmistakable presence that is confined to itself. For the oriental tradition, the notion of a finished artwork is unintelligible. In fact, the artwork is understood as an infinite process without a teleological purpose. The artwork (and its process) does not aim to a definitive and stable identity. On the contrary, it is thought as a piece of incessant transformation.

Within this counter-narrative, the copies of the Terracotta warriors were not different from the ‘originals’. Chinese people, explains Chul-Han, even use the concept of fuzhipin to designate exact reproductions of the original; such concept, in any case, has a negative connotation. Because the object is an exact reproduction of the original (or the first) work, they are convinced that in their essence they are not different.

Why then the Hamburg’s Museum of Ethnology claimed that they were deceit and reimbursed the visitors of the exhibition? Legal storytelling can help us to explain this situation by saying that the dominant narrative of legal originality, institutionalised by copyright’s law, is obsessed with individual originality exerted to produce unique pieces of works; this obsession excludes entire traditions, such as those described by Byung Chul-Han, and social practices such as indigenous people creation processes, collective authorship, among others.

Legal storytelling can be a very fruitful methodology to highlight how the law exerts violence when determining its scope of operation. However, a further question can be made: It is just a matter of who’s narrative is hegemonic? What if the limits of the law to grasp that exclusions are not an issue of a discriminatory narrative? What if such limits are, in fact, structural limits of the law as an institutional artefact?

The law, like language, has limits. Such limits are exacerbated when the language institutionalise and categorise social practices, as the law does. If we think about legal concepts as being construed by constitutive rules in the form ‘x counts as y in c’ (Searle, 2018) exclusions are inevitable. No matter how inclusive a legal system could be, there will be violent exclusions. I think this is not solely a matter of narratives, but, in fact, has more to do with the very nature of law.


Works cited:

Chul-Han B, Shanzai. El Arte de la Falsificación y la Deconstrucción en Chino [2011] (Caja Negra 2017).

Latour B and Lowe A, ‘The Migration of the Aura or How to Explore the Original Through its Fac Similes’ Thomas Bartscherer (ed.) Switching Codes (University of Chicago Press 2010)

Sarmas L, ‘Storytelling and the Law: A Case Study of Louth v Diprose’ (1993) 19 Melb. U. L. Rev. 701

Searle J, ‘Constitutive Rules’ (2018) 4 Argumenta 51

The Guardian, ‘German museum admits terracotta warriors are fakes’ Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/dec/12/china.germany

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/dec/12/china.germany