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A People’s History of Artistic Freedom

May 7, 2009

Getting well underway in Affective Computing, but on a parallel track, I’ve started Lawrence Lessig’s Remix, since seeing an article in Wired announcing its availability as a free PDF as part of a contest to, well, remix Lessig’s work.  I’ll expound on this more when I have a full review ready, but it seems to me that the “free culture” movement has its roots in the “not Great Men” theory of history – i.e., the movement in historical research away from the idea that history is made through the actions of a few great movers, and towards the “People’s History” approach, in which the “unheard voices” of those who truly affected or were affected by the events in question are given their due. 

In the first chapter, Lessig quotes two artists on their take on free/remix culture.  The first is Candace Breitz, a video artist who creates installations consisting of around 25 monitors displaying ordinary people singing the music of a particular artist, who ran into difficulties with Sony over licensing the work of John Lennon:

In African and other oral cultures, this is how culture has traditionally functioned. In the absence of written culture, stories and histories were shared communally between performers and their audiences, giving rise to version after version, each new version surpassing the last as it incorporated the contributions and feedback of the audience, each new version layered with new details and twists as it was inflected through the collective.

The second is Greg Gillis, who remixes/mashes samples under the name Girl Talk, discussing the future of his art form:

People are going to be forced— lawyers and . . . older politicians — to face this reality: that everyone is making this music and that most music is derived from previous ideas. And that almost all pop music is made from other people’s source material.

What the “Great Man/Artist” loses in this process is his status as Literary Lion/Artistic Genius/Inimitable Voice, his wild mane of Beethovian hair announcing his tremendous, brilliant and unique presence as he sweeps into a room to take charge of the conversation, the orchestra, the studio – and of course, the lion’s share of the monetary proceeds from the result of his work.  The creation of art becomes more like democratic politics, a participatory process of many rather than a papacy or dictatorship of one.  The artist loses his throne, but in exchange, building art becomes part of building community, no longer the maddeningly solitary endeavor that, to be honest, is probably the reason genius and madness have walked hand in hand – lonely miser Silas Marner loses his pot of gold, but gets Little Eppie in exchange, and becomes part of the village’s life. 


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