Sunday, April 15, 2007

Plagiarize This!

Last week was a big week in Greek drama for me, and it resurrected the idea of plagiarism once again, as in: is it wrong for an artist to steal if it changes the work? I'll stress: my qualifier is that the new is different than the old, that you don't just add a line about cellphones to Alcestis and slap your name on the play as "Adapted by." How can it be wrong to play with text in theater if one of the things we celebrate is the way in which directors find ways to play with shows?

It comes down to money and ego, but remember that the words are out there. Just because you find them first doesn't mean you own them, especially when those words are a product of the experiences born out of this life. But if I can go out and write a better Harry Potter book than J. K. Rowling, if I can convince people to read it, why don't I have the right to do so? Theoretically, it won't hurt her capital unless my product is genuinely better (or achieves the odd sort of social popularity of cumulative advantage): in either case, I've a right to do so.

The triggering thought extends back to the controversial Harper's article of February 2007 in which Jonathan Lethem steals text (only to credit it in the end notes) to make a verbal collage on the subject of plagiarism. He's linked different ideas in a new way, and hence elevated the individual thoughts and methods, in much the same way that we vaunt the ability to "tag" things on the Internet and to explore the heretofore unseen connections between what's out there. In medicine, in sports, in history, in pretty much anything but art, this is an incredible boon: doctors making realizations about their differential diagnoses, coaches and trainers coming up with new strategies, historians making new realizations from the multiple angles . . . only in the "creative" arts is it a bad thing that we're scanning books onto the Internet or spinning off ideas to invent something new. I want to put James Tyrone in a play I'm working on: why not?

There's another article in that Harper's issue that was somewhat overlooked, and that was a joint piece between artist Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas as to who had the right to use a picture of "Molotov Man." Well, all Meiselas did was snap the camera at the right moment, to do what some cultures still believe to be "soul stealing" and then develop the print and find a willing publisher. What makes her the owner of that moment in life, then? An artist is really just in the right place at the right time: as Steve Martin writes in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the best artist is really just open to receive the idea at the moment it happens. In this case, Joy catches the reflection of genius off another person's "work" and in turn she adopts it. In this case, the controversy actually causes a whole cadre of netizens to adopt the art, and suddenly we're swimming in beautiful new works. And how can anyone possibly find that a bad thing?

Maybe I'm naive, but the artist is a filter. He or she (and gender is really irrelevant here) experiences the world and then creates something from those experiences. But the world is the universe and everything in it. Including plays, photos, advertisements, and so forth. The idea that work should be kept out of the public domain for x years is only more ridiculous in the medical community. But wait, you ask: if not for the protection of rights, why would anybody struggle so hard to create at all? Well shit, I say. If you're in this to make money and not because you love what you're doing, then you're in the wrong business. This will, inevitably, lead me into the class discussion that's come up on other blogs, but rich or poor, if you're striving to create from a commercial aspect, your work is already tainted by a need to succeed, and a fear of experimentation (or of succeeding at your experiment only to have someone take the next logical step off your experiment before you can).

The commercial world works so hard to force things into the public domain: lights flash, bells whistle, and smells drift at us through almost every orifice. When we succumb and allow the world to transform us, we should then be careful in our most intimate, free-thought moments of creation to then partition ourselves from all that is not truly "public domain" once more? I liked OEDIrx, but didn't like Orestes 2.0. Both, however, gave me thoughts for my own ideas (which is why there's no such thing as a bad night at the theater): why can't I use them? Chuck Mee was recently subverted himself, in the brilliant transFigures. Why shouldn't they use him? Notice how all this reviving hasn't stopped anyone from doing straight classics, like Prometheus Bound (to their own detriment), see how The Polish Play hasn't ended the career of Macbeth (this version itself being an adaptation) or Ubu Roi.

I'm a big supporter of the thoughts of the masses over the thoughts of the few, and when you limit anything, you come close to ruining it. Obviously, you shouldn't call something Beethoven or Samuel Beckett if you've altered their originals . . . but remember, it's when we try to call their adapted work something else (without permission) that we get into trouble as artists. Look at how the blogosphere works. I see a post that inspires me, I link to it and post about it. Someone else reads mine (and perhaps back to theirs), and then write their own. Suddenly there's discussion; suddenly there's something new. Nothing is wrong, everything is sacred. Go ahead, plagiarize this. You must.

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