My column last week seemed to have struck a chord, or perhaps a nerve, with a segment of Chatterbox readers, and I am gratified by the lively, thoughtful, and high-minded discussion taking place in the comments section. I haven’t been able to really get inside the back and forth because I am currently traveling with only intermittent internet access, combing the back roads of Thailand in search of new sounds and spicy food.
Many of the commenters raised issues that could each merit columns on their own. I’d like to jump on one or two today, throw in my two cents (or, more precisely, baht) and once again open the floor. For those of you who would like to catch up, please take a look. I’ll meet you back here after you’re done.
First of all, belated thanks to commenter Herb Levy, who was the person who pointed me to the clip of Lessig’s talk in the first place. Also thanks to William Osborne for the pointer to Sonia Katyal’s excellent article “Semiotic Disobedience,” which updates John Fiske’s postulation of semiotic democracy to include the notion that the disconnect between existing laws and digital media forces artists to “alter existing intellectual property by interrupting, appropriating, and then replacing the passage of information from creator to consumer.”
Today I’d like to move the discussion back a step or two, away from the legal, and focus on the ethical and aesthetic. Last week, Richard Lainhardt weighed in early on with a most provocative comment:
I agree that appropriation can result in viable and creative art, but I think there are levels of creativity here. I’ve always felt that someone who creates original work from nothing is, in general, more creative than someone who can’t create without building on the pre-existing work of others. And so I feel that, in general, painters are more creative than photographers, animators more creative than filmmakers, musicians more creative than DJs. And I think it better to [be] more creative than less so.
I can certainly agree with the last sentence, but I have some problems wrapping my head around the ones preceding. In fact it is impossible for me to consider a painter more creative than a photographer. Does that include a painter who looks at the real world and interprets it? Does it include the photographer who profoundly alters the images into abstraction? Aren’t we all interpreting our world one way or another? In fact, no artist starts the day’s creation tabula rasa. Isn’t there a world of cultural assumptions in the piano we write the sonata for? In the sine wave generators and synthesis algorithms electronic composers use?
I think Dennis Bathory-Kitsz gets it right when he says:
Despite a tradition that now feels like it, there’s no absolute ownership of the results of mental effort (except, perhaps, for those encased in the brain that forgets and dies). In fact, most of that effort draws from the ideas of others and mashes them up, whether it’s harmonies and melodic progressions or sound samples…The creativity of art is about reframing extant ideas, ideas from the society which raised and nurtured us, and protecting their manifestation is a courtesy. One way or another, those manifestations return to the society that is their true source.
Richard writes kindly about my sample-based work, for which I am grateful. It seems that I get a pass when compared to John Oswald—I’m smiling thinking about those TV commercials in the ’50s and ’60s, comparing “New Improved Tide” with “Brand X”—but whether one likes Composer A and dislikes Composer B doesn’t say anything about the underlying aesthetic. Richard, don’t you tacitly admit as much when you acknowledge there is a lot of bad electronic music out in the world, yet you obviously believe in the medium itself? By the way, I love Oswald’s work, especially his seminal Plunderphonics CD, yet I personally never “got” Grayfolded. And I have to say that as far as electronic music goes, at the risk of seeming to be log-rolling here (I assure you I am definitely not), Richard Lainhardt has composed some of the most beautiful electronic music on earth, and those of you who are not familiar with CDs like Staring at the Moon or Ten Thousand Shades of Blue—get thee to an iTunes Music Store!
Richard, you’re obviously invited to jump in and rebut my points above, as are all of you out there. I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone, as always. By the way, I had previously hinted that I would be posting some cool videos from Thailand as part of this column. I’ve got them right here, but some quality and uploading issues are preventing me from getting them on the web immediately. I’ll try to get them up ASAP, either as a comment to this column or as part of next week’s. Until then…