Posted on Aug 26, 2010
By Aram Sinnreich
Reprinted with permission from “Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture” by Aram Sinnreich. Copyright © 2010 by Aram Sinnreich and published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
“The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case.”
“The line between artist and audience is pretty much gone. I remember when I got my first digital production rig, I was like, ‘My god, man, this is like communism—the means of production are in the hands of the people.’ ”
The line separating artists from their audience has always been a bit blurry. From that moment during the Renaissance when someone first decided that a painter was more than just a craftsman with an easel, the whole idea of the Artist-with-a-capital-A has required an entire mythology just to make it seem plausible.
The biggest myth of all is the Romantic notion that artists somehow create their work uniquely and from scratch, that paintings and sculptures and songs emerge fully-formed from their fertile minds like Athena sprang from Zeus. Running a close second is the myth that only a handful of us possess the raw talent – or the genius – to be an artist.
According to this myth, the vast majority of us may be able to appreciate art to some degree, but we will never have what it takes to make it. The third myth is that an artist’s success (posthumous though it may be) is proof positive of his worthiness, that the marketplace for art and music functions as some kind of aesthetic meritocracy.
Of course, these myths fly in the face of our everyday experience. We know rationally that Picasso’s cubism looks a lot like Braque’s, and that Michael Jackson sounds a lot like James Brown at 45 RPM. We doodle and sing and dance our way through our days, improvising and embellishing the mundane aspects of our existence with countless unheralded acts of creativity.
And we all know that American Idol and its ilk are total B.S. (very entertaining B.S., of course!). Each of us can number among our acquaintance wonderful singers, dancers, painters or writers whose creations rival or outstrip those of their famous counterparts, just as each of us knows at least one beauty who puts the faces on the covers of glossy magazines to shame.
And yet, we believe the myths. How could we not? Who among us has the time, the energy, or even the motivation to buck the overwhelming support the myth of the Artist receives from the institutions that govern our society – to dispute our schools, our churches, even our laws? What is copyright, after all, but the legal assertion of an individual’s sole ownership over a unique artifact of creative expression? These laws, sometimes enforced at gunpoint, require us to believe the myths, or face the consequences.
Of course, there’s a reason the myths exist. Our economy runs on the privatization of hitherto public goods. Our legal system is premised on the individual as the locus of all rights, all liability, all blame.
Our society’s profound inequalities are only acceptable because we believe ourselves to live in a meritocracy, a world where a person’s success is de facto proof of his or her inherent worthiness. In short, the myth of the Artist-with-a-capital-A allows us to believe in America-with-a-capital-A.
And yet, there have always been cracks in the façade, pockets of cultural activity that fall outside the economic and legal system, and which therefore have no need for the myth of the Artist. An excellent example is Gee’s Bend, a relatively isolated African American community in rural Alabama, known for the glorious abstract quilt patterns produced for decades by the women of the town.
As William and Paul Arnett, art dealers and chroniclers of the Gee’s Bend community, describe it, these quilters never signed anything, never took individual responsibility for the strikingly innovative work they produced, and certainly never asserted copyright or made any other ownership claims over their output. There was no need to. In the Arnetts’ words, this is because the quilters “worked across several generations and developed a coherent graphic style absent outside patronage or commercial incentive.”
Ironically, intellectual property and individual ownership came into play for the quilters of Gee’s Bend only when their work was commercialized by a source outside of their community – namely, the Arnetts. A 2007 lawsuit by three Gee’s Bend quilters accusing them of intellectual property infringement was settled out of court in 2008. As French economist Jacques Attali once wrote, “the artist was born, at the same time as his work went on sale.”
Mashing Up the Myth
A similar dynamic exists within the sample-based music community – among the DJs who create mash-ups, remixes, techno, hip-hop mixtapes, and other forms of not-quite-legal music using pieces of other people’s work as their palette.
Like the quilters of Gee’s Bend, these musicians work largely without commercial incentive, and outside of the legal system that “protects” legitimate works of Art-with-a-capital-A. Unlike the quilters, however, sample-based music is a global phenomenon involving millions of creative individuals, using state-of-the-art technology. In other words, while Gee’s Bend is like a local relic of the days before capitalism dominated art and society, these DJs may offer a glimpse into a global future when its hold has been relinquished once again.
Some DJs rebel actively against legal and commercial institutions, while others simply avoid them as a matter of course; in both cases, these factors have helped to break down the artificial distinction between artists and audience. As UK-based musician Matt Wand told me: “I can’t draw the line, I definitely don’t draw the line – he’s artist, she’s audience – I can’t do that at all.” Similarly, DJ Axel, an LA-based mash-up producer (and major label record exec) told me that “it’s just a gray area. I don’t know if you can separate it any more, really. I mean, is a DJ an artist?” I asked him whether he could answer his own question, and after struggling for a definitive response, he told me he couldn’t, because “it’s too gray.”
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