In the February 2007 Harper’s Magazine article, “On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context,” painter Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas debate the bounds of copyright and how decontextualizing and “remixing” images affects meaning. Â
This is my response to The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, by Jonathan Lethem for Communications Lab at ITP.
First of all, Lethem isn’t really a plagiarist because he cites the sources from which he lift phrases.Â In any case, I get many of his points, and it was a great literary ‘reveal’ at the end of a well-written piece.Â I agree that The whole idea of copyright needs to be reassessed as society and technology changes.Â In fact, technological change often makes legal structures of intellectual property ownership quickly obsolete.Â As Lethem says:
In the contemporary world, though, the act of â€œcopyingâ€ is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringementâ€”we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward oneâ€”and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.
Lethem also refers to modern American copyright law’s “limitless bloating.”Â It is indeed a blunt instrument, that while seemingly universal in its scope, seems to best maintain and benefit the position of copyright holders at the top of the socio-economic-political hierarchy.Â What does Britney Spears really have to lose if I release an unauthorized cover of her songs?Â I am but a peon compared to the ASCAAP and the major label’s legal departments.Â But on the other hand, for a struggling independent artist, it would really suck if some major entertainment-industrial-complex corporation ripped off my work.Â Sure I could sue, that’s the American way after all, but it would probably be too expensive and too much trouble.Â There is also the hypocrisy of what Lethem calls “imperial plagiarism, the free use of Third World or ‘primitive’ art works and styles by more privileged (and better-paid) artists.”Â This kind of plagiarism represents a one-way appropriation, and not a multilateral cultural exchange of ideas.Â Neo-colonialism posing as creative production?
The problem is with what do we replace our current copyright regime?Â Creative Commons seems like a step in the right direction, in that it gives content creators choices on how to share, or to use Lethem’s language, “gift” their works of art to the world.Â Derivative works are inevitable and essential for the continuation of art.Â I think artists should be relevant to their place and time, which for us now means a society saturated with the signs of commercial advertising and pop culture, and enabled by facile digital replication.Â Yet there is endless potential to mine that mundane world for remixing, mash-ups and the next big recombinant art form, which won’t let antiquated copyright law get in its way.Â As Lethem says, “We’re surrounded by signs, our imperative is to ignore none of them.”
First of all, I think McLuhan is brilliant.Â I love the way he effortly brings together seemingly disparate references like Greek antiquity to Shakespeare to pop culture to make his arguments.Â He has been on my “to read” list for a long time now, but I never got around to it until it was assigned for Comm Lab.
It is important to note that the subtitle of Understanding Media is “The Extensions of Man”.Â For McLuhan, media are not simply forms of communication such as TV, radio, newspapers, etc., but but any technology that extends the human body or mind.Â Clothing, cars, houses, are all media according to this broad definition.Â McLuhan gives an example of axes as media.Â When metal axes were introduced to an aboriginal community in Austrialia that previously only had stone tools, the entire patriarchal social order was disrupted.
This brings us to another point that media are agents of change.Â By extending the human body – the senses and the mind – media have both a prosthetic and an amputational effect.Â In encountering new media, we both gain and lose something.
McLuhan divides media into high definition/low definition, hot and cool.Â High definition is hot.Â It gives a lot of information and requires little interaction from the user.Â Low definition is cool.Â It provides little information and requires the user to make an effort to fill in the gaps.Â For example, the telephone is cool, while the radio is hot.Â Television is cool, while movies are hot.
Of course we need to talk about McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.”Â I’m still trying to grapple with the full meaning of the phrase since I haven’t gotten through the whole book yet.Â But from what I understand, McLuhan seems to be saying that there is an inherent message embedded in media themselves, that transcends the explicit message transmitted by the media, and creates social change over time.Â If we return to the metal ax example, we could infer that the metal axes were not just about cutting things, but that their introduction to a stone age society represented a message of social upheaval that turned the hierachical order upside down.
Here is another quote that really resonated with me (page 31 of the Critical Edition of Understanding Media, edited by W. Terrence Gordon, 2003):
The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.Â The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.
The mixing of art and technology – hmm, sounds just like ITP!Â It seems that the work we do here all relates to putting McLuhan’s theories into practice.Â Not that I presume to be a “serious artist,” although I certainly aspire to be one.
I had to brush up on my Marxist fundamentals, which I haven’t really engaged in depth since my undergrad political science classes, to understand some of the historical/political references that Benjamin was making.Â This sent me on an hours-long quest looking up articles and reading articles online related to the issues Benjamin brings up.Â I find the essay prophetic, as if Benjamin can somehow look into the future and see Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and even more obviously propagandistic films like The Eternal Jew.
Benjamin writes: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”Â And he continues, “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.”Â I don’t think politics can be viewed as something separate from ritual.Â Politics and religion have always been linked.Â Also, in political narratives that legitimize power, there are invocations of “cult value” or “instruments of magic,” be it a “founding myth” of a state or nation, or in the idolization of certain historical founder figures.Â To me, they are two sides of the same coin.
“This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.Â Communism responds by politicizing art.”
These are the last two lines of the essay.Â Maybe I’m not understanding nuance here, but aren’t these the same thing?Â Both Fascism and Communism are mixing the art with politics or politics with art.Â I believe that art and politics have always been bedfellows and that the role of artists is to comment upon and engage with their societies and times.Â Sure, politicians and others can use art as a means of persuasion or propaganda, but others can similarly use art as a means of resistance against coercion and hegemony.Â The innovation of mechanical reproduction, or in our times, digital distribution and network communication make art an even more powerful and even more dangerous two-edged sword and tool for oppression and for liberation.
I don’t necessarily agree that there is a decline of the aura in art, but instead, I think that the ritual value and the aura of art have changed.Â There is still a ritualistic quality to going to see a movie at the cinema as an “event” or happening.Â Or the ritual fetishistic quality of unwrapping an album or CD recording and playing it for the first time.Â In fact, even with MP3s replacing CDs and movies available to download on demand, there is still an aura attached to the real thing.Â Audiophiles and DJs still appreciate the qualities of vinyl or CDs over MP3s.Â Even with the ubiquitousness of music through the popularization of iPods and other MP3 players, live music shows are still an event, a spectacle, something with an aura that has ritual value.Â In fact, the relative banality of ubiquitous mechanically/digitally reproduced music probably makes us appreciate live shows even more.Â Probably the same goes with movies.Â Sure, I can BitTorrent a movie and watch it on my laptop to avoid paying money to see it in a theater (but of course I wouldn’t because that would be unethical and even illegal), but there is still a lingering aura in seeing it in a theater, for the immersive experience and for the ritual social value of experiencing it with friends or a date.