Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Throttling Culture

I used to work on weekends, opening up a small non-profit art gallery in a municipality called Burnaby that was no longer exactly a suburb, but only because it now had a large mall. I realized from this two strange truths: the number of creative people in this backwater was surprisingly large; the quality of their work was surprisingly good. I'm not saying that we had dozens of undiscovered Atilla Lukacs here, but the fact that he's a local boy who made good, and that Emily Carr and Bill Reid are also from the same province (population: six million) says something about how common talent is. I went to a few meetings of the Writers' Society there, too, and heard good works in progress. I have no way of estimating how common expertise in pottery, music, or swordsmithing were, but I'll accept that there is a self-sustaining sufficiency.

Attila Lukacs

Emily Carr

Bill Reid
  More works by Bill Reid

 From the creativity in that one place, I can estimate how much more is in Canada and the United States--just subtract Burnaby's population from the combined population of Canada and the U.S., then divide what's left by the population of Burnaby, the municipality I was working in, and the answer is 1,558 Burnabies of talent in those two countries. In potential, a world of seven billion people has 31,390 Burnabies.

A number that large, a pool of talent that unmanageable, causes problems for critics and resellers, producers and marketers. Their role is to manage a scarcity of creativity. If creativity is widespread and common (as it is) and distribution becomes widespread and cheap (as it has) then they lose their grip on culture. It becomes whatever people choose to make. Critics, now, can look at Lukacs' paintings and talk about their quality and their meaning, then publicize their conclusions and Lukacs retains or increases his celebrity. With ten, a hundred, a thousand, or (heaven forbid!) 31,390 Lukacs out there, celebrity becomes too attenuated to exist. The attention of critics will be too widely spread for profitable comparison and discussion on a case-by-case basis. The only comparisons will be statistical. The tools of the archaeologist, to show the evolution of styles through time and space, will replace those of the art critic, comparing individual work with individual work.

So what does that mean for copyright? If art becomes an ocean, can we still treat it as a narrow river? Getty Images continues to make a living by licensing eighty million pictures, but when Flickr has over six billion, many of them licensed for use at no cost, can it continue indefinitely? The only way to do so is to introduce artificial scarcity. Don't believe it won't be tried. Don't believe it isn't being.

We saw this happen with music, so that, for example, live performances in a bar of the band’s own original music or even traditional music with unknown authors require paying licensing fees. Here is an older essay by Richard Phillips (2003) on how difficult it is to avoid the licensing fees and the chilling effect they have on live music.

Here is the sad, sad story of the death of the first version of, sacrificed on the altar of artificial scarcity. It looked, for a while, as if the site could give original musicians direct access to a large potential audience. However, it did not have the money to contest an RIAA (music licensing group) court decision, so it was eventually sold to one of the largest music publishers, Viacom, which promptly wiped its entire music collection: 1.3 million tracks from a quarter million artists. The competition that they represented for the music industry was destroyed.

Making a documentary film has even greater problems, due to a carefully-laid minefield of copyright and licencing laws. For example, the excellent film Sita Sings the Blues, created written, animated, and directed by Nina Paley on her Mac over a five-year period, could not be released in theatres because a music licensing issue--though the songs she had used were released in the 1920's and were, under Federal Law, in the Public Domain. The extent of such problems under American law is described in Duke University's comic book Bound by Law.  Even more about the way that law can choke creativity is in this Larry Lessig talk from a TED Conference:

Commercial art and entertainment have an inverse relationship with their user-created peers. The more time you spend reading, the less you spend writing; the more time you spend listening to music, the less you spend making it. The more you watch TV, the less you participate in life. As a final comment on this relationship, I'll leave you with an episode from the TV series Dinosaurs, which ran from 1991 to 1994. In it, Sinclair discovers that TV shows such as "Happy Colors" and test patterns are popular, but has a crisis of conscience when they become too popular. He suggests shows that educate and stimulate, but these cause the viewers to do things rather than watch television. Just in time, brain-numbing shows are re-introduced and the status quo is maintained.

Update: It looks like the video I linked to has been taken down. Search for "Dinosaurs Network Genius" to find another copy on Youtube.

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