We have scratched away enough of the skin from the myth of the lone artist genius to expose the scaffolding of its Romantic, Neoplatonist, Manichean origins, and watch it rust under the open sky. But we still understand the model of paradigmatic shift poorly enough to offer refuge to that myth in the notion that we ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’.
We do not stand on the shoulders of giants. If there is no solitary artistic genius, then the notion of ‘giants’ on whom revolutions of culture are built makes no sense either. Idea stands on idea.
We do not stand on the shoulders of giants. If there is no solitary artistic genius, then the notion of ‘giants’ on whom revolutions of culture are built makes no sense either. Idea stands on idea. Movement draws on, reshapes, reacts to, movement. Culture springs from culture. If we want to think of the process by which this happens, it makes sense to think not of what happens to these ideas, nor by whom such reactions are seeded, but of the milieu in which these movements grew. It is best to think not of sparks but of soil and water, of seasons of rain, of nutrients leached and ploughed back into the cultural landscape.
To put it less metaphorically, those things we think of as cultural revolutions, as genuinely new strands of metanarrative, come about not because of one genius, or a line of genii, or a collective of genii, but because a roiling critical mass of thought and circumstance has been reached. As Daniel Coyle demonstrates in The Talent Code, it is when lots of people start asking the same questions in the same situations under the same set of influences, that an answer will break the surface, erupting to life as if through the agency of an individual.
In short, creative step changes come not from the minds of individuals but from communities.
And that brings us to copyright. This is why.
James Fox’s fascinating documentary series Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is a simplistic but very effective illustration of the kind of communities that grow great movements. Specifically, those communities are the cities of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951. What mattered about every one of them, as was the case in early 19th-Century Haworth, is that they were places where different people from different intellectual and creative backgrounds were seeking to understand the same unstable, uncertain world. These backgrounds and questions and circumstances collided in market squares and cafes and tea shops and bars. Ideas circulated and evolved through conversations, readings, exhibitions. Revolutionary ideas were the emergent properties from these endless iterations of conversation, this process of sharing.
Ideas circulated and evolved through conversations, readings, exhibitions. Revolutionary ideas were the emergent properties from these endless iterations of conversation, this process of sharing.
Sometimes it feels as though the age of creative revolutions has passed, as though it’s a struggle to know where to look in the search for the genuinely new. The answer, of course, is to look for the communities that share the same basic qualities as, say, 1908 Vienna. And if you look at those small fluctuations from the past decade that may or may not become something more – Brutalism, the punk literary movement birthed on Myspace, the promisingly heterogeneous strands of Alt Lit – it is clear where many of those communities are: online.
Online communities are fabulous at sharing, flashing ideas back and forth, circulating, twisting, playing. But while the forums and groups, the bulletin boards, chatrooms and sub-reddits that have taken the place of the coffee shops and bars function as the meeting spaces of these new communities, there is a fundamental difference. Because their conversations are not casual and transient, they are fundamentally closed, limited. These communities lack access to the sum of the conversation of which they are a part, and lack the ability to participate in that conversation through a fully free manipulation of the words that have gone before.
This limitation is not down to the nature of these communities, but their dependence upon a copyright system designed to avoid sharing and protect the interests of individuals and small groups, thus usurping the creative model of abundance and replaced it with one of ownership. One of the biggest challenges we face as artists is that we as a group have become the most vociferous supporters of the system most inimical to art.
Does the systematic closing down of creative conversations matter? Yes, it matters more than anything to our creative future. A vibrant, progressive cultural future is not built on a series of individual successes but a collective conversation in which the contribution of every member of the community is equally essential to the emergence of the next great step. As writers we face a question – do we protect or do we share? Do we commit to a zero sum game that sees our own success dependent on setting our words in stone and fencing them in, or do we commit to creating an ever more rich and interesting world by accepting that our words are worth more when we see them as our gift to the future?
Do we commit to a zero sum game that sees our own success dependent on setting our words in stone and fencing them in, or do we commit to creating an ever more rich and interesting world by accepting that our words are worth more when we see them as our gift to the future?
In order to commit to an artistic model of abundance, sharing, responding with empathy, compassion and articulation to a world we seek to better, we must attack the problematic relation of creativity and copyright from two directions. First, we need to question all narratives that tell us our best interest is our self-interest. We need to encourage ourselves and the writing community around us to participate in the open sourcing of literature.
One way we can start to do this is for artists to use a Creative Commons licence for all their work. Creative Commons is a form of copyright that allows you to choose who can do what to your work, and whether or not they can make commercial gain from what they do. This means you can require people attribute you for what is yours but can then move on, bringing their own twist to the work, and so on. This should be the default for how we make our art available.
But we must also critique the assumption that we exist to accrete, to hoard – whether of ideas or wealth. That means tackling the creative community and leading by action.
We must accept that writers like everyone else must live, and that penury does not promote a diversity of voices.
We must accept that writers like everyone else must live, and that penury does not promote a diversity of voices. We can do that for ourselves by creating both new ways to earn money that do not involve placing part of the sum of human knowledge and culture behind a paywall. And we can do it through transforming society so that creativity and commerce can be decoupled forever through the implementation of a universal income.
There are many answers we need to find if the twenty first century is to be as rich in cultural renewal as the twentieth. But fundamental to them all is dismantling a copyright system inimical to collaboration.
Further reading and viewing
- Basic Income Earth Network
- Creative Commons
- The Internet’s Own Boy – the story of Aaron Swartz
- Gabriel Josipovici Whatever Happened to Modernism?
- Michael Hessel-Mial & Penny Goring, eds., Macro: An Anthology of Image Macros
- Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
- Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking