How public opinion on artistic practices changes theory/this is bad

First it was “Rip! Mix! and Burn!”

Now it is simply just “Burn!” It is the second time in a few weeks when an artist is caught “red-handed” using, remixing, appropriating another artist’s work. Last December Shepard Fairey aka Obey was blamed for borrowing an image from the public domain, now rapper Timbaland is caught “stealing” from another artist.
What’s disturbing is not the cases themselves. Anyone with an average visual literacy knows that Fairey works from whatever he finds and places his works back to the urban visual fabric. Also the name Timbaland that plays with the brand Timberland hints a tendency to borrow. These people do what they are supposed to do: low-level cultural recycling. (I don’t mean this as something negative or worthless. On the contrary: without maggots the whole food-chain would collapse. Inspiration works in mysterious ways.)

What’s disturbing is how the public discussions around these news assess such artistic practices. I do not know those people who participate on these fora. Based on the nicknames and the quality of the arguments it seems many of them are very young and inexperienced. Despite (or rather because?) of this, they seem to be confident using arguments that echo the rhetoric and arguments of RIAA lawyers rather than the arguments of remix culture advocates or artists from Duchamp to George Clinton.
I am afraid that the digital collage-culture, the read-write culture Lessig talks about is endangered not by the direct actions of the content industries, but by their indirect effect on how the next generation thinks about such issues. IP lawsuits get wide coverage in the mainstream media, and as the YouTube download statistics show in the online networks as well. I can only wonder if the cross-referential, inter-textual nature of culture -when it gets mentioned in art history classes or R&B magazines- is also as strong a signal. In courts aesthetic arguments or artistic tradition have less weight than legal arguments, and even if they do get considered, fair use victories, decisions on the scope of fair quotation (Thx Aniko!) get much less popular attention than piracy cases. What news, what kind of pressures shape the minds and norms of the ne(x)t generation? Is everyone of them, who now cry thief, innocent in downloading copyrighted material from the net, using downloaded pictures in their school papers, using cracked software? And if -as I suspect- they aren’t, what kind of standards are consolidating right before our eyes?

Skimming through the thousands of posts it seems that the most serious accusation or rap, the most uncool thing to do is to rip-off another artist. The rip-off can be financial, it can mean the lack of giving proper credits or it can mean not asking for permission. It is associated with a lack of creativity and originality on one hand and exploitation on the other. What is originality, what is creativity? What does “standing on the shoulder of giants” really mean? This debate is at least three centuries old and no end of it can be seen. I do not know if either giving credit, asking for permission or sharing revenues could or should be universal norms. But I am sure that these norms should not apply only to those who are financially successful.

Few arguments from this rich debate enter into the popular discourse, the judgment seem to come more from the gut than from anything else. But gut-reactions are reflexes not reflected upon, imprinted by repeated stimuli (think Pavlov). Bhattacharjee et al. may not have been able to show strong causal connection between legal threats and the level of file-sharing in their article (Bhattacharjee Sudip, Gopal Ram D, Lertwachara Kaveepan, Marsden James R. (2006): Impact Of Legal Threats On Online Music Sharing Activity: An Analysis Of Music Industry Legal Actions, The Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLIX), but there may be an effect after all, even if a more subtle one and reaching not necessarily the desired aim. Instead of curbing file-sharing it changes how we think about the rules governing creative expression.

If mix, and remix, appropriation, quotation, hommage, collage and all the rest -call it the individualization of the commonplace- becomes uncool, guess what we are left with. Originality? Guess again. 

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