Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-aste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks? (Lethem 68)
I just finished February 2007’s Harper’s and there was a series of great essays on copyright, citation, and appropriation. If you’re not a Harper’s reader, they’re worth checking out.
The image above, a photo by Susan Meiselas of Nicaraguan Sandinista Pablo Arauz in 1979, is the central image of concern in the article “On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the Art of Context.” Meiselas took the photo and found that it has been appropriated by a variety of groups, but she found it objectionable when artist Joy Garnett appropriated the work for a painting. Garnett argues that she owes Meiselas nothing more than a citation, but Meiselas’s argument is that Garnett has decontextualized the Arauz and the act â€” “converted [it] into the emblem of an abstract riot” (58).
This “conversation” between Meiselas and Garnett got me thinking quite a bit about context and copyright before moving into Jonathan Lethem’s amazing essay “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” where Lethem argues for a more open public commons where works are more easily appropriated without concerns of copyright law. His argument depends on the differences between a gift exchange and commodity exchange: in a gift economy there “a feeling-bond between two people” established by the gift, whereas this connection does not exist in commodity exchange. A piece of art (a CD, a movie, etc.) can of course still be sold and have this gift quality, but if we continue this movement toward a complete commodity exchange, we’re losing the connections amongst people.
What makes Lethem’s argument even more powerful is has ability to cite, quote, and plagiarize, and at the end of the essay is a “Key” in which he lists the sources for where he quoted without quotation marks, paraphrased, or altered others’ words. The essay is fantastic for Lethem’s ability to appropriate and cite in order to make such a good argument, and I have no qualms about admitting my complete adoration of it.
But then I wonder about how this essay works in relation to the prior dialogue between Meiselas and Garnett. Where does context fit into Lethem’s argument? And with that, ethics? Certainly I agree with his argument that once a work has been released into the public commons, it should be perceived as a honor to be appropriated, and that copyright should be used to ensure rights to original expressions, but not restrict subsequent re-working. But where does the ethics or this citing fit in? By this, I’m concerned with decontextualizing, with groups in power using images from other texts and appropriating those images for their own use and even domination of those not in power.