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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Archive fever: vol. 7: Art and appropriation

1. Last semester I gave my students one of my favorite essays of all time ("Forty-One False Starts") by one of my favorite writers of all time, Janet Malcolm. The essay is difficult to describe--basically, the essay consists of forty-one brief introductions to a profile of contemporary artist David Salle--but here's a good capsule of it in an unrelated piece in the NY Times:
ABOUT a decade ago, Janet Malcolm wrote a profile of David Salle entitled "Forty-One False Starts." It was just that: 41 short essays considering the artist. In each, Malcolm introduced Salle by his full name and, often, his occupation: "The artist David Salle." The effects of this repetition proceeded with K├╝bler-Ross precision: at first, Malcolm seemed to be indulging in a postmodern exercise, then to be mocking Salle's fame, then glorying in it. Finally, her "David Salle" incantation gave a certain poignancy to the whole exercise, as if, without Malcolm there to pin him down, he'd simply float away. Her tone was magisterial yet oddly sweet.

Salle's art in is based in collages of images appropriated from other sources, so Malcolm's essay mirrors her subject's work in that it's a pastiche of different forms of profile writing (adulatory, reserved, critical, and so on). It's a fantastic essay, and it's collected in Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker (ed. David Remnick). On that note, two of Malcolm's other amazing books have been about appropriating other people's stories, in one way or another: The Silent Woman is about biographers' trouble in writing about Sylvia Plath, and The Journalist and the Murderer is about how/whether a journalist controls a profile subject's story.

2. With Malcolm in mind, one of my former students recently gave me a copy of an article from the February issue of Harper's about appropriation and art. "On the Rights of Molotov Man" is a set of two brief essays by Joy Garnett and Susan Meiselas. In 1979, Meiselas took a photograph of a Nicaraguan rebel throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Somoza national guard garrison; the image became an iconic symbol of resistance not just in the Sandinista movement but in other contexts, as well. Garnett saw a reproduction of the photograph when she was putting together an exhibit about riots and demonstrations; she painted a six-foot-tall reproduction of part of the image and included it in a 2004 gallery show. Garnett then received notice that she had infringed on Meisela's copyright of the photograph, and she thus entered into a debate about the aesthetics, philosophy, and politics of appropriation. Other artists appropriated the disputed image and circulated "copyfight" images to further the debate about fair use and adaptation. An earlier version of Joy Garnett's essay was published in Cultural Politics in 2005. There are scanned reproductions of some of her appropriated work in the essay to give a sense of what she's doing. Here's an excerpt from Garnett's essay in Harper's:
In this swirl of creative agitprop and commentary, several questions came to the fore: Does the author of a documentary photograph--a document who mission is, in part, to provide the public with a record of events of social and historical value--have the right to control the content of this document for all time? Should artists be allowed to decide who can comment on their work and how? Can copyright law, as it stands, function in any way except as a gag order? These remain open questions for many people. It was a blogger named "nmazca," however, who posed what has, for me, become the central question in all of the activity surrounding Molotov. Referring to the lone figure of that Sandinista rebel, nmazca asked, "Who owns the rights to this man's struggle?"

Meiselas's response poses another way to think about that question because part of her concern comes from an interest in the subjectivity of the people she photographs. She gives numerous examples of how the image was reimagined and recontextualized over the next 20 years in Nicaragua.
No one can 'control' art, of course, but it is important to me--in fact, it is central to my work--that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places. Indeed, Joy's practice of decontextualizing an image as a painter is precisely the opposite of my own hope as a photographer to contextualize an image.
There is no denying in this digital age that images are increasingly dislocated and far more easily decontextualized. Technology allows us to do many things, but that does not mean we must do them. Indeed, it seems to me that if history is working against context, then we must, as artists, work all the harder to reclaim that context. We owe this debt of specificity not just to one another but to our subjects, with whom we have an implicit contract.

The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that The Journalist and the Murderer would be a great companion to these articles! I feel like both authors hit the moralizing button a little too hard--are there other ways to make the argument than to invoke the powerless? Or is that the big issue here?

3. Be sure to check out "The Ecstasy of Influence," by Jonathan Lethem in that same issue of Harper's. I cannot say much more about it because it repays a naive reading. The companion to the piece is the Promiscuous Materials Project, which sounds like an awesome idea:
I like art that comes from other art, and I like seeing my stories adapted into other forms. My writing has always been strongly sourced in other voices, and I'm a fan of adaptations, apropriations, collage, and sampling.

I recently explored some of these ideas in an essay for Harper's Magazine. As I researched that essay I came more and more to believe that artists should ideally find ways to make material free and available for reuse. This project is a (first) attempt to make my own art practice reflect that belief.

My thinking along these lines has been strongly influenced by Open Source theory and the Free Culture movement, and by Lewis Hyde's book, The Gift.

Ben, do you want to try it? Here are the stories that he's made available.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 09, 06:50:00 AM:
Another uncanny co-blogging moment: I came to the blog today to post about... the exact same three articles. (It proves that my blogging about X-Men and Nintendo and your blogging about Oulipo and the Paris Review are just strands of the same thread.)

I strongly second your recommendation of Lethem's essay -- I predict it will be widely reproduced (wink) for college course reading.

(And I also want to put in a word for Janet Malcolm's fascinating book In the Freud Archives, in which she gets unwillingly sucked into the narrative, and which will forever put you off Freud and megalomaniacs in general)

The whole Harper's issue, in fact, shows a strong unity of theme. I just started subscribing to Harper's again; after years of reading it, I had been driven crazy by Lewis Lapham's choice of endless, catatonic essays. But this issue is brilliantly edited.

Random memory of Lapham: in the basement of Carman, a Columbia dormitory, where he defended tobacco advertising in Harper's by declaring "I love cigarettes, and I won't be a hypocrite."