Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jackson Bollocks

Happy Holidays, everyone!

I'm in the middle of a fun back and forth with an Anonymous commenter who apparently takes exception to the premise of my previous post, the idea that mashups are worthy of consideration as Art. I've decided to pull the discussion out of the Comments section and relay them in this new post rather than spending all my energy on stuff that many readers will likely never see. (I'm leaving all original comments in place, too.)

I'm assuming that all the Anonymous commenters are the same person. If they're not, well, they are now.

Here's the exchange so far (although I flipped the order slightly to improve the flow). Anonymous' comments in italics:

"The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works."


Surely you jest...

...and the analogy to Picasso is absurd - Picasso mastered the form. Very different from taking two paintings and digitally laying them one over the other.

And my response:

Rare indeed is the work of art which does not in some way build upon existing sources. When two or more elements are combined to create a new work which comments on and expands on the sources, the new work is an original work of art.

I used Picasso to make a point, but I acknowledge in retrospect it may not have been the best choice since he DID in fact invent Cubism. But I think you'll find if you study Picasso that he lifted many forms from African art. This is the nature of art and culture.

Perhaps Roy Lichtenstein would be a clearer example of a major artist who appropriated material from popular culture and turned it into new works of art.

In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues. Imagine if some RIAA goon had been sitting in the audience taking notes ("Let's see, 12 seconds of The Beatles Lovely Rita, twenty seconds of Miles Davis, twenty-two seconds of Sinatra's Love and Marriage..."); Cage literally would have been unable to perform the work!

At any rate, I think American Edit is a superb work of art which is fundamentally different from Green Day's American Idiot. Obviously, "Dean Gray" took advantage of excellent source material, and their mashup honors Green Day while creating an original and fantastically energetic soundscape.

Remember, too, that this was a NON-COMMERCIAL work of art; no one ever attempted to make any money on this. The idea that artists can't freely make art unless they get "permission" strikes me as deeply offensive and anathema to a society that prides itself on its free exchange of ideas.

"In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues."

And it famously wasn't very popular. Coincidence? You decide...

Where did popularity enter the picture?

Kinda then depends on your definition of "make art."

If any hack with a computer can then sling together two existing works, then where's the art?

Here, I'll play: I'll drop paint splatters on a Sex Pistols album. Boom! Jackson Bollocks! See? I've made art!

[For my less hip readers, Anonymous is suggesting a hypothetical mashup between Abstract Expressionist genius Jackson Pollack, he of the "Action" paintings, and the seminal punk album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which sports one of the most famous covers in rock history.]

Jackson Bollocks? Brilliant! Pollack was the punk artist of his day!

In fact, sometimes inspiration like that can be better than you think; "Jackson Bollocks" would be a hell of a tee shirt! Of course, Art also depends on context; the same "Jackson Bollocks" tee shirt would have a different meaning coming from, say, David Byrne than it would if you saw it for sale at The Onion store. But I hate the idea that neither you nor I could legally create the shirt, regardless of context, even if we wanted to GIVE THEM AWAY and ask those who receive them to donate to alcohol and heroin rehab programs for starving punk painters.

Regardless, it is NOT the case that "any hack" slinging together two existing works can produce American Edit, any more then my ten-year-old slinging paint at a canvas can produce a Pollack. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but if you can't see the Art in excellent mashups like American Edit or The Grey Album (or in Jackson Pollack, for that matter), then we probably don't have much more room for discussion.

There's a huge difference between 'influenced by' and 'lifted outright.' If you don't see that then we're speaking two different languages.

The term "lifted outright" is the same as "stolen," which seems a ridiculous term for an openly acknowledged remix. After all, American Edit is very much a tribute to American Idiot, and as such it has a significanly deeper meaning if you're familiar with the original work and understand the relationship between the two -- and the social and political meaning of mashups in general.

Incidentally, if you want to see "lifts," go check out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a film in which half the shots (the interesting ones) are lifted straight from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Strange, I didn't see any attribution in the credits...


[A big shout out to Anonymous for the title of this post -- which I shamelessly appropriated.]


Anonymous said...

Not one author of the comments. Two of us, and I've changed my blogger display name to clear up the confusion. (And I'm the creator of the 'Jackson Bollocks' you seem to be so fond of. Should we have more exchanges you will probably abscond with more of my material.)

Oh, and the difference between Jackson Pollack and the "authors" of American Edit and The Grey Album: He didn't have to appropriate others' works to create what he created. He was an artist.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Thanks for suggesting I'm hip.

PeaceLove said...

Thanks anne (and anon). I know where you thought I was suggesting you're hip, but your hipness seems pretty dated. Maybe you were hip twenty-thirty years ago?

Contemporary hipsters grok mashups.


Anonymous said...

See, now you're just being hateful. You're suggesting you're the final arbiter of style - "I get it and you don't."

Here I offer an olive branch and you use it to strike.

Reading comments in previous posts, I see another commenter called you judgemental. I see where he gets that now.

PeaceLove indeed, smilies notwithstanding.

PeaceLove said...

I thought the ;-) signalled irony? At any rate, I don't think judging a person's hipness quotient, pretentious as it may be (and I WAS being ironic), is "hateful" or even "judgemental" in the way you mean. I defended myself against that charge in the comments you cite, but the gist is that even if I suggest in all seriousness that you're missing the boat with mashups, I don't in any way use that assessement to judge you or cast any aspersiouns on your worth as a human being. I certainly didn't think I was being "hateful!"

At any rate, I apologize if you took offense; this discussion is SUPPOSED to be fun!

jb said...

Just some thoughts, not necessarily in any cohesive form.

Artists, rights holders, musicians, record labels, and many others put time, effort, and money into creating their works. Those works include marketing efforts, promotion material, the actual art work, and more to the point of the discussions, a brand.

If I were to create a company named "Like" and chose as my logo the familiar Nike(tm) swoosh with just a few alterations, this would be a threat to the brand that Nike has spent loads of time and money building. As a result, I believe they have a right to defend that brand and take action against such an infringer.

Take this to the mashup example. Green Day creates an album titled American Idiot, promoted by Warner/Reprise. This reinforces the brand that Green Day and Warner/Reprise have worked very hard to create. Warner/Reprise have the right to defend that brand, and based on its contract with the band, are probably legally bound to defending that brand, regardless of what the band members think of the mashup. Regardless of the art created through mashups, a mashup can be perceived as a threat to the brand.

This extends to all forms of creativity, be it music, fine art, performance, structure, and even to commodities. Apple, BMW, Proctor and Gamble, Nabisco, and others must protect their brand, they owe this to the owners of the company.

Until that time when our world is supported by pure free exchange of goods and services, with the removal of all forms of financial benefit, I believe we must respect the processes in place.

Testing boundaries is always necessary, but blatant disregard for established norms of our society do not help advance society.


PeaceLove said...

I'm not a lawyer, but I think JB may be confusing trademark law with copyright. Nike has the legal right to protect their Swoosh, just as McDonalds can sue the dickens out of anyone attempting to create a similar-sounding restaurant. I don't think a work of art like Green Day's album falls under the same legal framework, and nor should it.

jb said...

I too am not a lawyer but the point I was attempting to make is that a brand is much broader than the direct element such as the exact song or exact cover art. Record companies go to great lengths to create a brand for the artists they represent, that brand includes the artwork, the sound, the name, etc. If a record label did not make efforts to protect this brand they would likely be breaching a contract with the artist.

PeaceLove said...

Your argument seems to be that anyone who produces any artistic work should be able to claim that it's a "brand" and is therefore untouchable by any other artist. Since the history of every artistic form is one of building on the works of previous artists, if you take this argument to its logical extreme then artistic and cultural progress comes to a standstill.

It is also the case that obscenely restrictive copyright rules tend to help the wealthy and powerful, who have the resources to sic their legal teams on artists they feel are infringing on their "property." Any legal framework that discourages an open culture of artistic creativity while protecting the deep pockets of large corporations is extremely suspect, to me.

jb said...

The form of the art is the instruments used, the artwork is how an artist puts together the notes, lyrics, etc. If you take your example of mashups to to logical extreme, I could choose to release an "unmashed" or "barely mashed" version of a Green Day song under my own name with no worry that I am hurting the artist or the label. The question then becomes at what point is a piece original.

As for protecting the deep pockets, artists are not forced to sign with a big label, and the artists do have some say over the contract they sign. If you climb into bed with the devil I think you know what you are getting into.

I will add that anything is justifiable if one chooses the right argument. For example, it's ok for me to pirate satellite TV because the signal is on my property. If they can find a way to get it off my property, I won't take it. Or, it's ok to pirate software because I wasn't going to buy it anyway and I don't use it for any commercial purpose. Both of these do hurt people though, not just big corporations. The big corporations are just the top of the funnel, they pay the salaries of the little people writing the code. Some would consider software an artistic expression but I assure you you can't just change a few graphics within MS Word and distribute as your latest mashup.

PeaceLove said...

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about mashups. I don't consider them "piracy" but rather a legitimate new art form.

The question of how different is "different" is one the courts are occasionally asked to determine. Unfortunately, the court system favors power and wealth; in fact, most mashup artist will simply surrender when faced with a "cease and desist" letter from a lawyer representing "the devil" (your term for big record labels). Regardless of their legal standing, mashup artist generally don't have the deep pockets to get their day in court.

One of the famous early cases of this type involved experimental media collective Negativland and their single U2, released in 1991. The single sampled about 35 seconds of a U2 song in the midst of a crazy-quilt sonic collage. Island Records, which handles U2, sued Negativland. $70,000 (which was more than the band had earned in ten years together) later, Negativland decided to settle rather than go bankrupt. Full story here.

The risk that someone will release a "barely mashed" version of an original work is one that can be specifically addressed through legal channels, but it's not a risk that justifies restricting all creative work involving collages of other works. That's like saying that the risk of someone auctioning off stolen goods justifies banning ebay.