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Blogger Book Club: We Love Amateurs

by Corey Dargel

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In a recent article written for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, Greg Sandow claims that the non-profit arts world doesn’t have a good enough argument for its own economic relevance.

He raises legitimate concerns about the NEA primarily supporting symphonies and opera companies, institutions that pay obscene salaries and charge obscene admission prices. Overall, though, the article is a smug, shallow critique that offers no suggestions or solutions, much like the current Republican strategy of contentious obstruction.

I read the Sandow article just before I started reading Remix, and it colored my experience of the book. I was thinking about why people are hostile or apathetic toward the arts and what, if anything, can be done to change their attitudes.

One of Lessig’s goals in reforming copyright laws is to make it easier for the average person to create remixes. This, he argues, will not only make the average person’s life richer; it will also expand her understanding of what’s involved in the process of making art. Now more people than ever have access to tools like GarageBand, iMovie, Wavelab, etc., which allows them to experiment with manipulating content in a creative way. In doing this, they become better acquainted with both the playful and logistical/technical aspects of creating something original.

Before recordings existed, amateur singers and instrumentalists would regularly get together and play through musical scores for entertainment. They knew from experience how difficult it was to play or sing well, so they truly appreciated the work and talent it took to be a professional musician or composer. Lessig believes remixing can work the same way: the more amateur remixers there are, the more appreciation there will be for professional artists, especially those who use technology.

Does this hypothesis ring true to you? If so, do you think this is a possible step toward more public support for the arts?

Comments

  1. Man, that is an interesting question. I would say that remixing would almost certainly contribute to appreciation of the artistic process (the optimist would say that the increased distribution would make for an even greater appreciative audience than otherwise; the pessimist would say that anyone coming to that appreciation through remixing would have come to a similar appreciation through some other creative outlet without remixing).
    But would it lead to public support for the arts? Or would the freely available status of artistic content lead to it being actually devalued (at least from a market/price standpoint)? In economic terms: do the arts follow the law of diminishing marginal utility?
    I’ve heard people in the arts world say that charging admission, even a nominal amount, is psychologically important, because the audience will impute more value to the experience if they pay for it than if it’s free. I wonder if the sort of decriminalized remixing Lessig advocates would undermine that, or if the two forms of artistic consumption are so different that no significant overlap would occur.

  2. Almost all kids in America has access to crayons, but that doesn’t mean they are drawn into becoming visual artists. The popularity of Lego blocks and before them Lincoln logs and tinker-toys has not seemed to grow the ranks to architects and engineers. If somebody’s not into the arts — and I’m thinking about John McCain — nothing is going to turn that switch on in their minds. People who have some interest in playing with media will be encouraged if the tools are readily available and easy to use. But genuine disinterest in the arts is no more likely to reverse than my disinterest in follow sports teams, despite decades of exposure via tv, radio and print publications.

  3. I don’t see how it could do anything but help. People who already like live performances won’t stop going because they dug my freely available mash-up of X and Y and Z or learned how to make one themselves. I also don’t expect the never-before-interested will suddenly become season subscribers–this is about sampling, of course.

    The remixing that Lessig talks about is mostly of the broad cultural commentary type as opposed to personal Facebook-style audio ID. But what about when it’s the latter, when it becomes about the personal sample you’ve got–say, a recording of the Baltimore Symphony from their live October 4, 2012, performance that you made with your awesome digital recorder. You went to the show with open ears–actively listening for something the orchestra was saying about your life and art and experience in the world. I’m not sure how that translates economically, though I suspect it does that, but it certainly sounds like it makes sound cultural sense. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing with art?

  4. Meg Lewis says:

    This is an interesting thought, but I think generally, people value what they want. They pay enormous amounts of money for some things: sporting events, eating out at restaurants, even some kinds of art – cable TV so that they can watch cable network series, $50-$70 for a band that they enjoy, and women of a certain age come out in DROVES and pay just about any price you ask for a parody musical about “the change.” It’s all about whether or not they relate to the art. The best way to find an audience who can relate to art of any kind is to have better arts education in our schools and communities. Otherwise the art will have to relate to the audience. Which, perhaps is just the evolution of the art. And maybe remixing is exactly that and in its own way, is good for our current arts audiences.

  5. This is a tough question…but I think I have to answer it in the negative. Before someone can remix a set of artworks into something new, they have to have an existing relationship and knowledge of those artworks. Once they have it, then it’s possible to remix them into something that’s potentially richer. Since it’s the original that dictates the experience that leads to remixing, therefore, I don’t think it’s possible that wider access to remixing on its own will lead to greater appreciation. It’s a little like getting the cart before the horse. Before I can get the joke of guys dancing to “Single Lady,” I have to have seen Beyonce & gal pals dancing to “Single Lady.”

  6. I agree with your idea, certainly. Howard Mandel has got a good point about how mass availability of competitive sports hasn’t increased my interest in sports one iota (leaving it at, oh, about zero). But just because that specific example doesn’t apply to us, doesn’t necessarily devalue your overall proposition.
    Just to look at the proposed parallel: Arts education, for example, has declined significantly in recent decades, far more than, say, support for sports in grade school. In my cheap approximation of Freakonomics-mode logic, I’d take that to mean that far more people are at an earlier age given an opportunity to gain appreciation of sports than they are of “fine arts” music.
    I do agree that one of the benefits of increased activity in remixing media will be a tactile-like experience among “amateurs” that will result in increased overall interest. One semi-related parallel I’d offer as support is how much more diverse the material subjected to general listening is than it was 20 years ago; the rise in web-distribution of music (free, gray-market, and “pirated”) has contributed to the decline in the superstar musician (at least in pop music, broadly defined) and to the rise in a wide number of genres and sub-genres.
    The main lingering question for me, to get back to Corey’s idea, is if that promise will go unfulfilled because games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band and all the instrumental-karaoke tools satisfy people just enough that they don’t make the step further toward tweaking musical (and other artistic and media) materials themselves.

  7. Matthew D says:

    Obscene salaries? What cultural institution is this, and are they hiring? Don’t answer that–we all know the answer. Maybe for performers, directors, and top executives, but even then those salaries are not “obscene” compared to what is becoming all too apparent on Wall Street. The vast majority of employees at cultural institutions, myself included (museum professional), work for very, very, very “un-obscene” amounts driven by the common goal of institutional survival.

  8. Keeping with the “remix” theme here…It occurs to me that you all might be interested in Dave Soldier’s Hip Hop Raskalz project (hip hop music created by 5 to 10 year old kids from the Amber Charter School in East Harlem). He did a great job showing the students how to physically produce sound, listen, and operate some consumer relatively inexpensive recording equipment. What the kids came up with is really creative!
    http://www.mulatta.org/dhhraskalzpage.html

  9. Just one more note, about the word “smug.” There’s intentional smug and perceived smug, and in regard to the latter, I don’t see the value in reserving the tern “the arts” to apply to institutional fine arts. When I see that usage, I can’t help but see behind it an inherent devaluing of an enormous amount of culture. Not a wilful one, but a needless one. Much of the “institutional arts” of our time served popular purpose at the time of its origination, and I have utter confidence that various arts and artists that are today deemed coarse and unimaginative will, with great hindsight, be appreciated more by people who didn’t get it when other people were actually listening to the stuff on the radio, dancing to it in clubs, or coming upon it online.
    It’s Friday as I type this, on the bus, on my phone, thankful for the opportunity that communal-technological tools like this online chat, which combined with my phone, allows me to participate during my commute. It’s the last day of our discussion of Remix, and I wish it weren’t. I’m in regular communication with a large number of composers, performers, writers, editors, curators and so forth, despite which the varying opinions here reminded me that my cultural circle is all too small.
    When I read Remix, I read it as an attempt to argue something I generally agree with, and I read it in large part to see the extent to which Lessig succeeded in summarizing ideas I apparently mistakenly imagined to be pretty widespread and simply required collating. There’s still plenty of time to discuss, but I want to start the day by saying thanks to everyone for having taken the time they have already.

  10. Hi everyone. Great to get your thoughts. To use an example from my life: Recently, I’ve been working with WordPress to redo my website. I am a novice at CSS and code, but I downloaded some free designs and eventually figured out how to get inside the php files and tweak some things here and there to suit my site. All of this made me happy, but then I came upon a problem that I just couldn’t solve, so I posted to a discussion forum and asked for help. Within hours, the creator of the design I was using responded to my post and told me how to solve my problem. After that experience, I have a much greater appreciation for just how much work is involved in good web design, and now whenever I use someone else’s design/code, I always contribute a little money to their projects.
    Okay, okay, I know there are holes in this metaphor, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how artists can use donation or shareware-like systems.

  11. I’ve been holding off all week because I’ve not had breathing space to actually read the book, but Corey’s post here (and a comment he made elsewhere earlier in the week) intrigue me. Specifically:
    “better acquainted with both the playful and logistical/technical aspects of creating something original”
    seemed at first to clash with:
    “it does seem too “easy” — the creation of collages with little or no original content”
    And this is the catch with what I glean from Lessig’s take on culture (as a side note, I do know that his concerns aren’t entirely with the aesthetic, but that several important documentaries – on the Civil Rights Movement, eg – have fallen foul of copyright restrictions): where is the original content? Without someone coming up with genuinely new material, we’re faced with a rapidly increasing impoverishment of expression. Everything becomes po-mo and ironic and context over content, and no one says anything genuinely new.
    But then I saw that this doesn’t necessarily clash with Corey’s point in this post: the key, as I read it now, is “better acquainted”, not “completely acquainted”. Playing around with remixing might give some insight into the difficulties of original artistic creation, but doesn’t give the whole picture.
    I’m just nervous about pushing too far the idea that all of music’s difficulties in communication and education, as well as any of the heavy intellectual lifting that goes into creating and receiving any worthwhile art, might be done away with now that we all know how to create mash-ups.

  12. The whole arts-education thing also hinges on how much amateur remixers regard remixing as more of an activity in and of itself as opposed to a sort of heightened mode of interaction with things, with musical objects for consumption.
    When you think about it, music-making as part of public-school curricula in the US started to wane around about the time that the kids whose primary experience of music was through recordings grew up to become educators. Remixing is a creative activity—the question is whether it’s enough to turn the perception of music back into one. (Full disclosure: darned if I know.)
    Marc’s point about the smugness of the term “the arts” has a grain of truth, but I also know that most anyone I know in a rock band would probably snort-laugh if I referred to what they do as “the arts.” So I think there’s some smugness-aikido there as well. (We snobs brought it on ourselves.)

  13. Before recordings existed, amateur singers and instrumentalists would regularly get together and play through musical scores for entertainment. … Lessig believes remixing can work the same way: the more amateur remixers there are, the more appreciation there will be for professional artists, especially those who use technology.
    This hypothesis does ring true to me. There’s a Knight Foundation stat that’s often circulated: something like 74% of people who attend orchestral concerts have played an instrument of sung. So participation certainly does nurture interest as well as appreciation, and ultimately support. If you’re similarly trying to make films or edit audio or whatever, then yes, you’re going to really appreciate what the professionals do.
    But I wonder: do copyright laws necessarily have to change in order for this kind of creative playfulness and engagement to be encouraged? The laws need to change only if we want to publicly distribute or make money from the fruits of our amateur experiments. Just as those amateur singers and instrumentalists wouldn’t have to give a second’s thought to copyright matters until they decided to put on a public concert.
    PS. Where do I sign up for the obscene salary?

  14. What’s curious about this question is how it may or may be applicable to genres that don’t necessarily spring right to mind in terms of remixing — like theater, like film. How do you “remix” a play, for example? How would the legal system redefine “fair use”? There’s a lot of food for thought here.
    Leonard Jacobs
    Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report
    http://www.clydefitch.com

  15. The Wooster Group’s LSD: Just the High Points is one example of what “remixing” a play might look like.
    The Group videotaped themselves performing Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” while high on acid. Then they meticulously recreated the video as part of their live performances.
    The cantankerous, misguided Miller sued the Group and shut down the performances. You can read more about the piece here, or visit TWG’s website here.

  16. I think the Sandow’s piece is simply showing that the burden of the sale always lies with the seller. We artists tend to believe that the public should support our work, if not out of interest, then from some moral obligation. This is why so much of our financial support resembles that of a tithe, and also why a concert hall, with it’s rows of blue hairs and echoing coughs, often resembles a church. Some answers or ideas would have been nice in the article, and justifying the Wall Street bonuses while calling a 25 million dollar gift to the Met an “overflowing cornucopia” is ridiculous and ideologically bent. But it’s also silly to think that the general public should inherently value our services over that of, say, Detroit.

  17. Molly – just wanted to thank you for curating this discussion. I hope you can find some other books for so many interesting guests to comment on. Brilliant idea.
    Molly says: Thanks! If you see books out there you think we should read, please drop me a line.

  18. That is an interesting hypothesis. I am taking a “music and media” class and we were actually discussing this the other day, and how by making remixing illegal, the music industry has limited creativity (they use the word “they choke creativity). If you get more people who are not known experts to make art, then we can have more appreciation for the industry.

  19. This is a tough question…but I think I have to answer it in the negative. Before someone can remix a set of artworks into something new, they have to have an existing relationship and knowledge of those artworks. Once they have it, then it’s possible to remix them into something that’s potentially richer. Since it’s the original that dictates the experience that leads to remixing, therefore, I don’t think it’s possible that wider access to remixing on its own will lead to greater appreciation. It’s a little like getting the cart before the horse. Before I can get the joke of guys dancing to “Single Lady,” I have to have seen Beyonce & gal pals dancing to “Single Lady.”

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