Remixing Reality: Art and Literature for the 21st Century

17 August 2014

This week, it’s s Remixing Reality – Art and Literature for the 21st Century. Remix is all the rage, these days. Some people claim that absolutely everything is a remix. Of course, if that were literally true, it would imply that nothing new is being created anymore. But in one sense, a remix is a new thing. A remix is a new thing that that results from the creative transformation of the old. Though people tend to think of remix as a distinctively 21st century thing, great creators have been producing remixes practically forever. Think James Joyce. Oscar Wilde. Or even Shakespeare. Every single one of them was a remixer.

Of course, one  huge differences between then and now  is that 21st century technology makes it so easy to make remixes.  You could see that as a negative.  One of its consequences is that you don’t have to be a  great artist anymore to produces remixes.  In fact, you don’t have to any kind of artist.  Any kid with a music collection can compose a mash-up and post it on youtube.    And you might think that there's little if any creativity or originality  involved in that. 

On the other hand, you could see as a positive thing. Art has been democratized, but that doesn’t mean it’s less creative.  I recently heard a mash-up of Adele’s  “Set fire to the Rain” and Daft Punk’s “Something About us”  that was  absolutely brilliant!

But the remix skeptic will say, I am sure, that  for every good mash-up, there’re hundreds of mess-ups.  To the skeptic the whole remix thing will seem like  a recipe for endless lawsuits and derivative pseudo-art.  It’s the Hollywood disease.   Hollywood these days makes sequels to sequels, remakes of remakes, and copies of  copies. They can’t think of any new stories to tell. Where has all the originality gone?

Now if you are a fan of remix, on the other hand,  you are likely to hear in such complaints the faint whisper of some outmoded and romantic ideas about creativity and originality in what I just said.  According to an old-fashioned view about creativity and genius,   creativity, genius, originality are all the products of the singular individual, the creative genius, with a unique voice and vision all his or her own.  

That's certainly a romantic ideal.  But why think that it's outmoded?    Well because  creativity and originality just don’t work that way  -- not now, anyway, but perhaps they never have.    Even the most creative genius,  is just a point of convergence for multiple lines of influence.  Here’s an analogy.  Compare writing a novel or composing a piece of music to curating a museum exhibit.  We wouldn’t deny the originality and creativity of the curator just because she arranges other people’s artwork.   The exhibit itself is a work of art – a new and distinctive work of art.  Sure it contains other works of art.  But it isn’t reducible to them.   Mutatis mutandis for novels or poems or music!   Artists are merely curators. When they create a work, they’re just putting on display various lines of influence.  Some are just more explicit and open about it.

Now I grant that there is also a huge dis-analogy, as well.    The curator of a museum exhibit isn’t ripping off anybody's work.  There’s a very bright line between the creative work of the curator and the creativity of the works being curated.   Novels or movies or music that directly incorporate the works of others blur these lines -- sometimes intentionally.  That can be a problem -- especially given the state of the copyright law.   Still, the general point stands.  Leaving the law aside, there is nothing about, as it were, the metaphysics of art that prevents brand new works built from being built on and even directly incorporating other works of art.   At any rate,  lots of people seem now to believe this and transgressing old creative and legal boundaries in the name of producing more such art.   Personally,  It think it’s worth getting the law out of their way and allowing them to remix to their hearts content.  Then we can see what they come up.   And only then should we pass final judgment on this burgeoning new movement. 

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Aesthetics is one of those

Aesthetics is one of those fields to which I haven?t had much exposure, and so I find this discussion all the more fascinating! As I listened to the show I was reminded of a David Foster Wallace essay I recently read: Greatly Exaggerated?originally written for the Harvard Book Review but republished in Wallace?s A Supposedly Fun Thing I?ll Never Do Again. Though a book review at its simplest, at a deeper level the essay tackles the question of the author?s role in determining the literary meaning of the text she authored. Though at first this may seem but marginally related to this show, I think the question of the author?s role post-production is one of the several that is at the heart of the remix debate. If we consider authorship as extending across all artistic disciplines, for example, the author?s role?if it exists at all?in determining the meaning of a work may make irrelevant the origins of this work. On the contrary, if we dissociate the author from her work, we create a space where it becomes much easier to give importance to a work?s origins, namely to question whether they should count at all in our valuation of that work.
In a different vein, throughout the show, Shields made clear his point that ?art is incendiary? and removed from the world of ?sober scholarship,? supporting the absence of proper citations in these new remix works. I wonder, however, what Shields would say in response to the objection that abstaining from citation makes all the easier cultural appropriation; moreover, to remove citation is to remove from a work its marker within the timeline of our history. How are we to orient a piece within the context in which it was created, to track its effects on future works?both, I would argue, crucial to developing a deeper understanding of the work?if not for citations? Additionally, we might ask as to art?s role in our society. Is it a force for social change, does it lag behind and follow, is it contemporary with, or does it draw on aspects of all of these? Tracking works allows us a better grasp on their relationship with our society at large. But maybe here is where we draw the line between popular remix culture and academic work.
For the moment, despite an attractive line of argument from David Shields, I find myself siding with Ken and John. Perhaps this view is a product of the milieu of a college education in the humanities, or perhaps there?s something more to it. Regardless, this show now has me thinking about aesthetics and about all the ways in which our philosophy of art can enter those parts of our lives that we generally consider absent of it. Certainly another topic to add to the reading list!