Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Art, Technology, and Being A Good Citizen

Penn Knows


Penn Teller is no dummie. This is from a 1994 issue of Wired Magazine:

"Technology adds nothing to art," he says. "Two thousand years ago, I could tell you a story, and at any point during the story I could stop, and ask, Now, do you want the hero to be kidnapped, or not?" But that would, of course, have ruined the story. Part of the experience of being entertained is sitting back and plugging into someone else's vision.

"The fact of the matter is, since the beginning of time, you could buy a Picasso and change the colors. That's trivial. But you don't because you're buying a piece of Picasso's fucking soul. That's the definition of art: "Art is one person's ego trip."

Penn says he and Teller "have been offered a huge amount of money and a huge amount of technology to do interactive shit. We have turned them down. Not that the technology wasn't up to snuff, but because we don't have any ideas."

"The whole fucking world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology," he says, as we whiz by the Blade Runner-like landscape of New Jersey oil refineries. "The bottleneck is really in art."


Exactly. Making stories "interactive" makes them less powerful stories. It is not at all clear to me that making stories interactive offers any benefits whatsoever. Penn's telling us this in 1994, and people are still today bleating about how wonderful "interactivity" is.

I understand why people enjoy games. There are games that I enjoy. And a Choose Your Own Adventure (which is a much of a story as a game can ever be) is a certain kind of game. But it's not art.

What elevates me, what enthralls me, is getting a piece of an artist's soul. Surrendering to another's ego trip, in the hopes that if they're skilled enough, and imaginative enough, and intelligent enough, they can sweep me up so thoroughly in their ego trip that I can forget myself and be shown the world from a point of view that isn't my own. "Interactivity" makes that HARDER. Not cooler.

Good Citizenship


Okay, let's move over to copyright, cause that always gets Corey riled up.

More wise words, these ones assembled by a writer named Jonathan Lethem. Jonathan has published his latest novel, and is embarking on a unique project to give away the film rights for free. He has a refreshing attitude towards how folks make use of his output:

If you make stuff, it is not yours to command its destiny in the world. God help you, you should be grateful if it has one. It's fantastic if anyone cares.


True dat. I find repugnant the prevailing notion that an artist has some sort of say over how their art gets used and interpreted and re-interpreted and chopped up and turned inside out. While I'm sure Sam Mendes had to get permission to use clips from Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter in his film, Jarhead, I think it's wrong that he did. Just like I think it's crazy wrong that you have to pay musicians in order to include their music in your film. How does that protect the artists' copyright? Crazy wrong.

So it's very cool and very interesting to see this experiment he's embarked upon. It has some similarities to the folks over at A Swarm of Angels, but is slightly less ambitious. Which might make it more likely to succeed.

He's also written an article on the subject, basically an extended riff on the glory of extended riffing called "The Ecstasy of Influence" (itself a riff on Harold Bloom's idea of "The Anxiety of Influence"). The article is long but greatly rewards reading. I'm going to touch on a few of the key points and offer my ecstatically influential comments.

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let's try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse. Whether the monopolizing beneficiary is a living artist or some artist's heirs or some corporation's shareholders, the loser is the community, including living artists who might make splendid use of a healthy public domain.


That's great -- consider Mickey Mouse a natural resource, and then consider how much sense Disney's monopoly on it makes. Our culture would be richer, both artistically and economically, if we cut down that monopoly.

He gets into the idea that art is based on the idea of a gift exchange, rather than a commodity exchange, and reflects on how important the notion of a gift exchange is to human society:

The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade, and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don't want to be bothered, and if the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I'll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions—marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.


One of the simplest and most profound moral acts is to give without expectation of reward -- the very definition of a gift. Erin and Steph and I were talking Saturday about Buddhism and Erin was explaining Mahayana thinking (maybe -- there was wine involved so my memories are not to be trusted): there's a vow one takes to NOT enter Nirvana until ALL sentient beings have entered Nirvana. One takes the vow knowing that all sentient beings will never enter Nirvana. It is, in a sense, a gift given to the world, with full knowledge that one will never receive the putative reward (entrance into Nirvana).

Christianity, and indeed, most religions, has similar thinking -- true merit comes from giving with no expectation of gain. Lethem is arguing that art, as a relationship between artist and audience, is founded on this very principle. The artist offers their soul to the audience. Of course money may change hands, but the act of artistic creation is at its heart one performed with no expectation of reward.

Art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—is received as a gift is received. Even if we've paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.


The stuff we pay for isn't the critical part of that gift. What really matters is how one person's soul touches our own, and there is no way to predict that or put a value on it (those two ideas are really the same idea here -- you put a value on things that you feel you can predict the impact of). This strikes me as a pretty good definition of art, even if it's pretty "feel-goody" and tough to nail down.

Art is a gift. At least, there must be a portion of it that is offered as a gift.

This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it's never really for the person it's directed at.


Such a timeless idea, such a current idea -- that you can direct your gifts towards people you've never met, and that they can tell if you've directed it towards them or not. It fits the Internet, the ultimate in faceless mobs, and it fits ancestor worship. There are such rich currents flowing here that it's impossible to exhaust the implications.

What about gifting towards ourselves? Steph's been sharing some of the ideas she's been reading in the works of Pema Chodron and this seems to relate to her idea of "Being gentle on yourself". When people talking about pleasing themselves with their art, I think that misses the notion of the gift. Give yourself your own gift. Maybe artists, even if only subconsciously and partially, understand this, and that part of what makes someone capable of calling themselves an artist and producing and sharing art is the willingness to accept one's own gift.

Perhaps this underlying sense of self-worth (even though it may be overlaid with masses of insecurities and self-loathings) is that quality that people recognize as making someone "artistic". Artists are those who at the least gift themselves with their own creativity.

Of course, whether artists or not, few of us do a very good job of embracing our own gifts.

And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of our selves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves.


Meaning no offense to the marketing flacks among us, but nobody can thrive if all they do is produce advertisements. Giving gifts strengthens the giver. Treating one's gifts as commodities weakens and shrivels one's own spirit. I know that when I give of myself freely and openly, again with no thought of reward, that's when I'm most rewarded.

During our conversation Saturday night I got kind of heated. I'm a profoundly competitive person, but I try very hard to keep a lid on that because I find that behaving competitively, especially in a non-competitive environment, makes me and everyone around me less happy. I let my desire to "win" overwhelm my own judgement and I hurt the folks around me. And myself.

But when I apologized (in my own halting, insecure fashion) and did what I could to repair the damage I'd wrought to the conversation, I felt inside myself an easing and an opening. The less I tried to control the conversation (even as I was apologizing), the more I got out of it.

Not a new insight, for me, but something I keep on forgetting day after day. Not entirely unlike maku-uchi men that way.

Lethem closes his article with a moving blessing and a meditation on the nature of artistic production, ego and egolessness:

As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.


Do not fail to look over the extensive notes at the end of this article. They will startle and move you.