CUTTING ACROSS MEDIA: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law

Kembrew McLeod and Rudolf Kuenzli
Duke University Press ($25.95)

by Allie Curry

Cutting Across Media begins by assuming a broader and necessarily more interdisciplinary debate about appropriation and copyright. For all their sweeping implicating, copyright reform activists Siva Viadhyanathan (Copyrights and Copywrongs), Lawrence Lessig (Free Culture), and Kembrew McLeod (Freedom of Expression) need the range of works anthologized in a collection such as Cutting Across Media to demonstrate that their work concerns not just a monolithic and imaginary community of artists, hippies, anarchists, and teenaged downloaders, but the mainstream of society. The format of the work itself captures the eclecticism of collage, considering that moments of impossible academic posturing are balanced with a few nicely curated oral histories, interviews, and photo essays.

The collection vacillates between well-demonstrated and novel critical positions. Where the most prominent works on the subject tend to dwell on digital’s infinite capacity to reproduce and share itself freely and its current kowtowing to corporate rights management, this book begins by situating appropriation art and collage in the earlier recesses of the twentieth century with Walter Benjamin, the Surrealists, and Dada. Along the way, it touches upon zine culture, audiotape collage, street art, and new wave science fiction; it critiques the international outflows of copyright-subject culture and then it critiques the debate itself.

Nothing represents this blending of perspectives better than author Jonathan Lethem’s celebrated 2007 Harper’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” which is the collection’s thematic heart. For those well-read in the matter, the content of the essay seems familiar (such as the claim that “Copyright is a ‘right’ in no absolute sense; it’s a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results”). But the structure of the essay reveals itself to be a plagiarism, an assembly of lines Lethem “stole, warped, and cobbled together as [he] ‘wrote.’” As Lethem explains in the short interview that precedes his essay, “appropriated culture has an energy that comes from the surprise and awkwardness, the disconcerting quality that comes from seeing things moved in and out of other contexts.” The same might be said of the collection as a whole.

Eva Hemmung Wirtén’s essay succeeds particularly in reframing the discussion, in laying bare the ideologies informing the popular critical intellectual property narrative. “Emerging is not so much a clearly identifiable [copyright] ‘studies’,” she writes, “but the presence of certain dominating discourses made up of recurring key tropes.” These discourses wax critical of romantic notions of creativity and individual talent while being implicitly committed to them; they assume that everything is better when it is free in both the economic and political sense of the word; they privilege male and Anglophone perspectives. French droit d’auteur—a legal principle that at its semantic core attends to the moral “right of the author” the way British and American “copyright” promotes the public’s interest in consuming and reproducing creative work—is easily forgotten in the popular discourse (indeed, Vaidhyanathan dismisses the moral rights approach as “censorious as well” in his interview with Carrie McLaren). Alternatively, Wirtén finds solutions in re-examining copyright policy through the lens of common law’s friendliness to “interdisciplinary incursions” in cultural theory and comparative literature.

As Wirtén writes and this collection asserts, “the tension between intellectual property rights and the public domain are global issues and problems.” From its dissections of transnational provocateur Chris Ofili and the folk music pilfering and proto-sampling composer Béla Bartók,Cutting Across Media argues that this tension is subject to all the familiar insensitivities and transgressions of cultural hegemony. Joshua Clover—the rare contributor in the work who isn’t wholly sold on the libratory potential of collage—argues that gangsta rap is the result of groups such as Public Enemy’s “retreat from political critique, or retreat from dramatizing inter-racial and interclass conflict as the dominant social fact”, which “coincided exactly with the historical moment in which the force of law brought an end to hip-hop’s era of popular theft.” As a result, “hip-hop is now in its second decade of celebrating ownership: of cash, cars, jewelry, and, alas, women.”

Despite Clover’s remarks—he is after all, commenting upon the often problematic interactions between legal and aesthetic codes of ownership/theft—Cutting Across Media is notable in the insight it provides into hip-hop and rap’s participation in appropriation art and collage culture. Davis Schneiderman discusses DJ Danger Mouse (author of the The Grey Album, a mashup of rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’s The White Album) alongside William S. Burroughs and McLeod’s interview with Public Enemy goes beyond the perennial sampling lawsuit example the most outspoken leaders in the debate love to share. Most forcefully, one can read here in the artist’s voice how the rising cost of sampling clearance made their early work impossible and altered their sound notably.

Nevertheless, the ideology Wirtén critiques shines through in the collection again and again. For example, Jeff Chang writes:

“Freedom of expression” is often described as a positive right to receive and disseminate information and ideas, as well as a negative right preventing curbs to their flows within society. But freedom of expression may also describe aspects of artistic expression that encompass their inspiration, production, dissemination, and reception.

Chang argues that freedom of expression might belong more in a discourse of “cultural rights, communication rights, human rights, and moral and legal rights.” Cutting Across Media delights in discipline-shaking passages like these, but until more global and fewer “freedom” and “rights” rhetoric-happy non-Western perspectives make their way into a work such as this, Cutting Across Media cannot be absolutely everything it strives to be. All credit to scale of the debate it imagines, the book only begins to sketch a course of action if we are to “intervene and interrupt social conventions in a way that is political” (Benjamin), if we are to reclaim the cultures we can observe being increasingly monopolized, monetized, and managed on a global scale.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012