Something in Common

If you go, please come back!

11/16/08 Mag: If you go, please come back!

Sometimes I’m a little slow. If I were an up-to-the-minute, breaking-news kind of blogger, I would have written about the NYT Magazine article on Lewis Hyde days ago. But since the magazine usually gets tossed on an ever-growing stack and doesn’t get read for weeks, the fact that I read it at all this week is pretty amazing. And reading it, I had one of those moments in which I realize a lot of my artistic and intellectual concerns (for what they’re worth) are always being explored by others – and in more meaningful ways.

I had never heard of Hyde before or his book The Gift. Hyde is a poet and philosopher, and The Gift is, from what I can tell, his exploration of the role of art in a commodity-driven, property-based society. Hyde explores the notion of a gift-based economy, in which objects and artistic “gifts” are freely shared, adding to their value. The article says that a long list of writers and other artists have read The Gift and been deeply touched. This theory of sharing one’s talents helps artists explain why they do what they do, even if they can’t make a living at it; something Hyde could relate to as a poet.

I was also intrigued by the way Hyde is said to blend so many ideas, from so many fields, in a short number of pages. “Hyde hops from a discussion of a Pali Buddhist parable to Marx’s Capital to the Ford Pinto and then moves quickly on,” then tosses in a few other subjects, all in 15 or so pages. Why, shit, that’s me! Right here in this blog! OK, I’m sure I’m not as profound as Hyde, or as a good a writer, and it takes me several posts to cover the same ground, but the diversity of interests is there. I know I have talked about Buddhism, Marx, and Ford Pintos, though not in one post or an attempt to make a coherent statement. But still – I am drawn to writers who are as eclectic as I am, who see how so much of human existence can be tied to something else, even if the route is circuitous.

So, I have to read The Gift. Soon. And now Hyde’s working on a new book about copyright laws (or more particularly, how corporations have been able to win extensions on them to serve their purposes – think Disney) and the notion of the “cultural commons.” The Founders specifically included the idea of copyrights in the Constitution: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” But to Hyde and others today, the key words there are “limited times.” Give the creator his or her due, then release the creation into the public domain, the “cultural commons,” where it can fuel the innovation of others. New art can be more easily created when many people have access to art and ideas unleashed from copyright restrictions. This cultural commons, Hyde and others believe, is similar to the public lands held in common in English towns hundreds of years ago. Private ownership and public interest need to be balanced, but in the United States, try doing anything that knocks property rights off their pedestal, and you’ll get knocked around yourself.

This issue, of course, has taken on new meaning in the Internet age, when it is so easy to digitize and manipulate others’ work. And I know I am guilty of sin by pasting into my posts photos I find on the Web. As a creator myself, I don’t always feel so good about it. But, I rationalize, I am not making money off it or trying to pass it off as my own. And in some cases, maybe putting in a musical sample or piece of art will lead readers back to the original source. The pool of shared knowledge becomes bigger. And is taking a snip of someone else’s work, without trying to gain from it, any different than a scholar quoting a source? This is all thorny, though, because I know when I hear musical samples on commercial products, and figure the original artist is not getting compensated, I think it’s a form of intellectual theft. Ahh, I’m not even sure I want to get into this –  I see both sides too easily…

(But this a perfect chance to put another one of my plays out into the ether, as a recompense of sorts. And since the response to the first one was so great (haha)…So, here’s my ten-minute play Can Can’t, free for anyone to stage. Just give me credit, and let me know if you use it, OK?)

A very cool guy

A very cool guy

The last major point I took from the article was Hyde’s view on what shapes artists. Believing in the sacred nature of the individual, we sometimes think great artists are “solitary and self-made.” But no – they spring out of a commonly held culture, and Hyde uses Ben Franklin as an example. Ol’ Ben drew on the work of others for his inventions (as most inventors do), and he readily credited his predecessors. Artists, too, draw out of a pool stocked by the creative folks who preceded them, as well as their contemporaries.

From Jeeves to Jung...

From Jeeves to Jung...

This got me thinking: who are the writers who have somehow inspired me? The

...shaping a complex complex?

...shaping a complex complex?

list is diverse, long, and in no way indicative of what I actually produce. But here are some of them: Woody Allen, George Bernard Shaw, Hunter Thompson, Billy Wilder, Garry Wills, T.C. Boyle (hmm, where are the women?), Emerson, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Twain, (aggh! Still no women!), Richard Hofstadter, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Jung, the Buddha, Tom Waits, Dylan, (and no blacks…), and that’s all I can think of right now.

This article, as you can tell, excited me. Hyde’s ideas excited me. Yes, I’ve kinda rambled here, but if I have led someone reading this to check out the full article, or think about some of these ideas, or come up with their own pantheon of influences (and they don’t have to be part of any canon), then that’s cool. And I just realized I could have added Arlene Malinowski to my list, the woman (finally!) who helped teach me and inspire me while I was writing my solo show. The cultural commons can be any thing or one around us. Let’s all wander down and see what we find.


~ by mburgan on November 23, 2008.

One Response to “Something in Common”

  1. Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award

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