November 19, 2010

"To live outside the law, you must be honest"


Whenever I’m tempted to say that something about our contemporary lives is radical or new, I’m reminded of the scene in No Country For Old Men where the retired, crippled deputy tells the sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones: “Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.

So it’s with a certain trepidation that I’d like to suggest that 2010 was a tipping point when it comes to our concept of originality, art, and theft. (Or perhaps I should say a tipped point.) What’s not new is that artists steal from other artists–that’s been going on since long before Warhol and long before Elvis. Theft is as old as value itself. What does seem new is how deeply we’ve embraced our entitlement to theft and how pervasive the culture of appropriation has become.

In a recent MobyLives post we quoted “Ed Dante” who, for a price, writes English essays for rich, lazy, or foreign students. What was notable was that Dante thought this plagiarism itself was a requisite skill, that borrowing and outsourcing was as important as creating. This Febraury the 17-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann was accused of lifting entires pages of text from unidentified sources for her bestselling and prize-winning novel Axolotl Roadkill. She defended herself by saying “I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context.”

Over at The Book Beast, Ben Greenman muses on the recent spat of joke thefts, including South Park using original lines written by College Humor and SNL ripping off a sketch from Modern Humorist about Brett Favre‘s allegedly photographed penis. Greenman is not overly concerned with the thefts themselves (“Everything comes from somewhere,” he writes), but is more worried about how the abundance of information on the web might stifle one’s creative ability since “It’s deflating to learn that your original idea, no matter how trivial, has already made an appearance.” Oddly, Greenman’s byline, while mentioning such titles as Superbad and Please Step Back (by Melville House), neglects to cite Celebrity Chekhov, Greenman’s own rewriting of famous short stories by Chekhov, an artistic move that is simultaneously unoriginal and original, and seems to prove that Greenman, like Hegemann, isn’t deflated, but inspired by the superfluity of art.

We’ve been living in a world of mash-ups since William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, David Markson, and … The Holy Bible, but it’s the sheer ubiquity of the remix culture that seems remarkable. In this context, the most significant book of the year might be David Shields‘s Reality Hunger which uses hundreds of borrowed aphorisms, quotations, facts, and opinions to create a helter-skelter manifesto that extols music sampling and lyric essays over the moribund novel form. “An artistic movement is forming,” Shields writes, though perhaps Reality Hunger marks not the formation of an idea, but its supersaturation. Like Greenman and Hegemann, Shields is notable for his unapologetic tone. Before the index of his sources, Shields writes:

Random House lawyers determined that is was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations… If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors a or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218… Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of the culture? We do–all of us–though not all us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Is this anarchic defiance the difference between 2006 and 2010? In 2006, the literary world was shocked at the unmasking of “JT LeRoy” and angry at the false pretenses of James Frey. In Reality Hunger Shields writes, “I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar… He could have talked abut the parallel between a writer’s persona and the public persona that Oprah herself presents to the world.” In a recent New York Magazine article about Frey’s new fiction factory, Frey is quoted saying that documentary is a thesis on truth that hasn’t been proven yet and that he “should have never fucking apologized” to Oprah. Many would agree with him. What’s to apologize for? In the age of Google, YouTube, BitTorrent, etc., a growing majority believes they own everything and should apologize for nothing. Perhaps this is the true cultural shift. While art has always been a product of influence, the “anxiety of influence” no longer exists. Why should we cite our sources? Why should we write our paper? What do we have to apologize for? From this frame of reference, the hyperlink is as valuable as the thought.

The definitions in these arguments are slippery (what is fiction? what is reality?), the aesthetics are tenuous (is a novelist truly less influenced by reality than a DJ?) and the morality is convoluted (why does the plagiarizing student seems more criminal than the plagiarizing German author?). The reason these postmodern arguments continue to perpetuate, infuriate, and excite is because we are faced with them everyday–whenever we read The Huffington Post or hit Command C–but the rules of engagement and fair play remain so tantalizing diffuse.

Jonathan Lethem addresses these issues (such as when a copyright is an abuse and when it is a right) with considerable nuance in his 2007 Harper’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” (an essay sewn-together from numerous other sources). But perhaps “his” most important point is this:

When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty. The line comes from Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach’s blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel’s long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into Absolutely Sweet Marie? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

In the end, I find this question of honesty the most crucial one when navigating the complexities, both moral and aesthetic, of creating art. There’s no yardstick by which originality can be measured. You can’t categorize art by its tropes. An “original” novel might be a pathetic rip-off and a cover song might be 100% fresh and new. James Frey is a bullshit artist and should be ashamed of himself regardless. Questions of integrity are issues you grapple with even as a blogger: Should I attribute the Twitter account that led me to the blog that linked me to the article I’m reprinting in this post? Am I creating something new or am I merely contributing to the static of the feedback? One must be honest with oneself, and with one’s audience. Even Trey Parker and Matt Stone apologized for ripping off College Humor. They must have felt like they crossed the line.

This is the moral element of the process that must not be ignored. Sure, you can steal all you like, go right ahead, but can you sleep at night? Jim Jarmusch might have put it best: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.”