Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Please put your name on your paper.

I read a really interesting article in this week's Newsweek about literary mash-ups, a review of a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. The book is an amalgam of quotations from various sources, split into chapters dealing with various subjects, including art, doubt, even reality TV. The reviewer has a really interesting experience with the book, and with the giant footnote section at its back that was included at the behest of the publishers' attorneys. The review ends by citing the words of Helene Hegemann, who recently published her first novel at 17, and evidently lifted sections of it from another source without crediting the previous author. I imagine a lily-white young woman with high cheekbones, straight hair cut into an austere, blunt angle at her chin, and piercing blue eyes. She shrugs pointy shoulders that jut out of the collar of a black sweater and sighs. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

Aside from parroting Ecclesiastes, the idea really gave me something to think about. I think I'd be furious if someone lifted segments, or the entirety, of my work, and then passed it off as her own. We throw students out of my school for that kind of behavior. The creative process has real significance, and to absorb the fruits of someone's creativity just because it suits your own purpose seems deeply disrespectful.

But really? I mean, I'm also thinking of visual artists who've taken that which has already been created and cut and pasted and thrown so many things into a blender and made things new. Of course, I can't think of any artists who do this, but that's just because I'm woefully undereducated about art history. I do know that collage is a hugely popular form.

And I'm thinking of old Sister Sledge licks that got sampled by Will Smith, and the scads of other musicians who've bitten from those before them to make the next dance single, pop album, Grammy-winning album of the year. Sampling is practically par for the course in so many other forms, so why is it so outrageous on the page?

I'm thinking that maybe it's not. I read that David Shields didn't want to footnote his sources and the lawyers made him; according to the reviewer, the book is better for their addition. It allows the reader to have a deeper, richer experience, knowing both the originality of these words as well as experiencing their innovation in Shields's hands. I think this might be okay with me. I think it is the right thing to say, "This brilliant piece I made wouldn't exist without these pieces I took from the following artists." I know that that's kind of impossible to do on the radio. You'll never hear a Kanye West song start, "The bass line for this song came from a James Brown song, and the melody was artfully borrowed from Diana Ross and the Supremes." It's just not possible. But there are always liner notes, right? People still read liner notes, and what gets written there still has some value.

I'm also thinking of a performance I saw while I was in undergrad, a performance two men did of a mashup between Naked Lunch and John Barth's The End of the Road. (Anyone who reads this in edwdoyle's Performing the 50's class with me? You remember this performance?) In the context of the class, I was having an awful time with Naked Lunch. I found it to be foul, gratuitous and incomprehensible. And John Barth was just kind of bland. Flavorless. But this performance, part of which was given in the dark, leaving me only to listen to the actors and imagine what they were doing, cracked both texts wide open for me. The kind of mashup that happened in that class was the thing I needed to know what kind of art I was experiencing.

No one, as far as I know, has ever taken something I made and tried to assert that it was theirs, and if they did I'd be fighting mad. But I'd have to look at the thing that they made with what was mine too. Maybe all art has the magic of theatre, in that once you create it, it ceases to exist, or at least, ceases to exist as YOURS, and now it belongs to the cast, the class, the reader, the people. There are plenty of legalists who would argue otherwise. But I don't know.

What do you think?

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