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How To Kill Creative Art

TyL's picture

How To Kill Creative Art

 Amanda Fortner


David Shields’ thesis in Reality Hunger is essentially this: because no creative work is truly original, but arrives instead out of the great maw of something called “culture,” it shouldn’t be owned or copyrighted. And yet we try. Copyright law, established in its modern form in 1976[1], protects both the work and the rights of the author and publisher to whatever copies, in whatever form, are created of it. Plus, it makes you pay for a copy of said art, if you want it. However, says Shields, what with the emergence of digital scanning technology, the internet, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and umpteen other inventions that allow one to take whatever one wants, turn it into digital media, and broadcast it across the universe[2], it is nearly impossible these days to protect copies. Therefore, he goes on to say, we shouldn’t try. We should instead bow to inevitability and create a “universal library,”[3] making everything available to everyone, essentially free of charge—or at least, for the artist.

            I take issue with this for multiple reasons, the first of them being that while I, an aspiring writer, can’t speak for the rest of my profession, I certainly wouldn’t want Shields taking my work and presenting it, uncredited, as his own, as is his wont.[4] The second (and more important to his paper) is, if he were to have his way, it would be the death of creative art.

            Who’s going to make the money, if Shields has his way and all creative art is released as public domain? It’ll be the middlemen: the producers, the mixers, the packagers, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, LiveJournal, Facebook and all the rest. The money, says Shields, will no longer be made by the artist, but by those who invent new ways to link, manipulate, tag, highlight, bookmark, translate, and sew together the art in the “universal library,”[5] a concept introduced by Kevin Kelly in his article “Scan This Book,” published by the New York Times.[6] Record labels and publishing companies will soon go the way of the dinosaur: “entire industries (newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, record labels) are threatened with demise, and most will die,” says William Gibson, “quoted” by Shields, in his article “God’s Little Toys,” published in Wired magazine.[7] If they want to survive, they’ll have to evolve and get into the business of the middleman: “relationships, links, connection, and sharing,”[8] whatever that means. Indeed, every mention of this concept is excruciatingly vague, implying that Shields, Kelly, and Gibson have about as much idea of what they’re talking about as I do: “Mass-media producers are wasting their time trying to hold the dam together, but it broke several years ago,” Shields says. “…these companies could try to figure out how to use this consumer interest to their advantage.”[9] How, he doesn’t say.

            This, however, is the general concept of the middleman: paying the creator a certain sum, and then using his vast technological resources to spread his work to the universal library, where anyone (or anyone who is willing to pay a certain data fee, perhaps; middlemen have to eat too) can access it. The creator gets to have his work spread around; the middlemen get rich; and the populace gets to read it, play around with it, venerate it, defecate on it, whatever they want. And all this out of the goodness of the creators’ hearts.

            I first thought that what we’d have if Shields got what he wanted was a kind of intellectual communism, a communal ownership of all intellectual property, and that’s probably what he does want. But as I read on, I realized that that won’t be his end result: what it will be is the very sort of capitalism that the communists rail against. The workers (artists) will be exploited by the owners (the middlemen) who have become their only means of getting their work “out there.” With no incentive except whatever these entities choose to pay them, if they choose to pay them at all, creators stop creating. And this is, in the end, why communism fails: lack of incentive.

            An analogy, using a test common in psychology studies, to explain this: let’s say there’s a hamster. We’ll call him Artist. Let’s say that we put him in a box with a button. Every time Artist pushes the button, we give him food. When will Artist push the button? Whenever he’s hungry, which isn’t necessarily that often. In general, hamsters are slackers: they’ll push the button enough to keep themselves fed, but beyond that they’re not likely to put in the extra effort. Let’s say instead that we intermittently give Artist a reward when he pushes the button. How many times will he push the button then? Constantly. He will be so obsessed by this button-pushing effect that he will keep producing, and producing, in hopes of getting that elusive reward.

            We’re going to pretend that I’m David Shields, and pretend that I invented this test. I call this the J-Ro Effect. De-analogized, our hamster—excuse me, artist—sees J.K. Rowling, the one-in-a-million dream of any artist, a single mother who wrote out the first pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on napkins at her waitressing job. J-Ro was catapulted from relative poverty to incredible success. The final installment in her Harry Potter series sold 15 million copies in the first day of its release.[10] The books, following the publication of the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, were made into a very successful series of movies, to the tune of 5,420,000,000 dollars worldwide.[11]

            Anybody would want that sort of success. J-Ro is a celebrity, a phenom, a genius, a millionaire (if not billionaire by now). Her books are going to make her money for generations to come. Plus, the books garnered incredible critical acclaim. But let’s say J-Ro knew that she wasn’t going to be making that sort of money from her art. Let’s say that the only place they were going was into some universal library, where they could be annotated and edited and changed by anybody who wanted to. She gets a small fee from Google or Wikipedia or whichever of those databases she sells them to, and maybe they become a widespread cultural phenomenon—but they’re going to pay her rent for the next seven months, and that’s about it.

            Does she waste her time writing these books, or does she put her head down and work harder at her waitressing, hoarding tips, in hopes that eventually she’ll get bumped up to assistant manager?

            This is what I’m talking about. This is why Shields’ and Kelly’s theses fail. Sure, there’ll be a database of all the creative and scientific work that exists, available to everyone who’s willing (or able) to pay, but creation will become a pastime, a hobby for those who can afford it. The rest of us, who need to eat and wear clothing sometimes, and put a roof over our heads, are going to have to find real jobs. And art stagnates.

            Kelly said it himself: “This model [copyright law] produced, in the twentieth century, the greatest flowering of human achievement the world had ever seen. Protected physical copies enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience.”[12] While the creation of art for art’s sake is a great and wonderful thing, somebody’s got to pay for the pen and paper (or laptop and printer) of the artist. And that means you, dear reader, and me.

And in the end, the best indication of why Shields’ thesis fails is this: he made me pay twenty-five dollars for my copy of his crappy book.

[1] Kevin Kelly via Shields, Reality Hunger, quote 37

[2] David Shields, Reality Hunger, quote 292

[3] Kevin Kelly, “Scan This Book,” New York Times 5/14/06

[4] appendix, Shields

[5] Kelly via Shields, quote 75

[8] ibid.

[9] Shields, quote 292

[12] Shields, quote 37



Anne Dalke's picture

From dinosaurs to hamsters?

You're not the only member of the class to have been provoked by Shield's claim that all culture is communally owned, and by the consequences of such a claim for the producers of culture, individual artists in particular. For more on this topic, see both ckorasek's Copyright Law & Fair Use: Who's Stealing?
and platano's A Copyrighted Manifesto.

You write from the p.o.v. of an aspiring writer, thinking about how you are going to make a living, and the burden of your argument is financial; if all culture is communally owned, artists will not be able to make a living: "creation will become a pastime, a hobby for those who can afford it. The rest of us are going to have to find real jobs." But don't most artists already have day jobs? How common is J.K. Rowling's story, which you hold up as a model that justifies the current system? Mightn't her success be the exception that proves the rule: that capitalism does not support the flourishing of the arts in any widespread or sustained way?

You also lament the demise of multiple systems now in play for the delivery of culture--"entire industries will die," but...what might be born in the gap created by those deaths? You know, of course, what happened to the small furry creatures we call mammals when the dinosaurs "went their way": they were given space to flourish...and eventually to evolve into us. What may seem like a tragedy from one point of view--the extinction of one species--might well prove--often has proved--to be an opportunity for another. And what Shields is gesturing toward is those opportunities.

You gesture in the opposite direction, but it's a little troubling to me that the means of that gesturing is opinion, and invention, rather than data and observation. You say that your opponents "have about as much idea of what they’re talking about as I do"; that's hardly encouragement for any reader to read on (on either side of the debate). You overstate your position: in the new world order that Shields imagines, you say, things will emerge from "the goodness of the creators’ hearts (yet cf. Corey Doctorow, who is flourishing under a version of the system Shields imagines). You (very) loosely apply Marxist analysis, with the artists as workers and the middlemen as owners (owners?). And you imagine artist as hamster, so obsessed w/ button-pushing that he can't stop producing.

But human beings are not hamsters; their motivations are many. And the research on motivation that Ken Bain shared w/ us last week (and that I shared w/ you all) suggests just the opposite of your scenario: that extrinsic rewards are not motivating, or in the long run nearly as productive, as internal ones. To really engage this topic, you need to learn more about it: from those who have studied it (see, for starters, Lewis Hyde's newly published Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership?) and then to construct an argument

I was completely flummoxed by your final gesture: "And in the end, the best indication of why Shields’ thesis fails is this: he made me pay twenty-five dollars for my copy of his crappy book." Well, actually, he didn't make you pay; I did. But how does your having to pay for a book you didn't like prove that paying for books is superior to open access or common copyright? Should "crappy work" be rewarded? I'm lost!