Lethem, in this essay, is particularly looking at the way artists take in, and reconfigure, the work of artists who have preceded them. He makes an argument that art is necessarily a process of quotation, and that modern culture can't move forward without a healthy dose of re-mixing and re-purposing what has come before. He sees this as an essential part of postmodernism, but traces examples before postmodernism (at one point asking "what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?").
As we move forward in this class , one thing I'll highlight is the importance of being vocal and articulate about our influences. And I'm partially using this essay as a springboard for you to talk about your own personal influences, and your history of quotation and transformation in your own practice.
THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE is mainly situated within the practice of literary criticism, though the principles are applicable to all disciplines, and Lethem touches on music, film and painting (the article can be tagged as genuinely "interdisciplinary" in that regard). Lethem himself is both an artist and critic – he has written both novels and critical essays, and we think he brings the useful perspective of being a “working artist” to his voice as a critic. Here he is working as a collage artist – as the end-notes to the article reveal, this essay on creative "plagiarism" is in fact assembled, cut-and-paste style, from other sources. So the work of criticism here is also a work of art.
Here are links to two differently-formatted version of the article – the first is a PDF version, with illustrations:
And here is a text version (with no illustrations), which might be useful if you want to copy and paste elements from it for the questions:
As a supplement to the essay, please look at the following short video. It's from the documentary RIP! A REMIX MANIFESTO, directed by Brett Gaylor. That film is a critique of current US copyright law, and in the section below it illustrates the conversation between Muddy Waters and Alan Lomax about the song "Country Blues," which Lethem also addresses in the essay. It's nice to actually hear their voices. And if anyone is interested, the entire film is available for free streaming online – you can just google the title.
For next class (Tuesday, 8/30), please write the answers to the following questions on the reading, and print the answers out (include your name at the top of the paper). We'll discuss the article in class.
READING RESPONSE QUESTIONS: THE ECSTASY OF INFLUENCE
Lethem writes (or quotes):
Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced.
QUESTION 1. What art “converted” you to your art? What fragments or reverberations of that inspiration/dialogue show up in your work? Where was the "quotation" from, and how did you alter its meaning by putting it in a new context?
Again, from the essay:
We’re surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them.
QUESTION 2. What is Lethem driving at here? What is he suggesting the artists' “imperative “ is? What "signs" do you particularly attend to? How do you interpret, translate or illuminate those signs?
From the essay:
Thinking clearly sometimes requires unbraiding our language. The word “copyright” may eventually seem as dubious in its embedded purposes as “family values,” “globalization,” and, sure, “intellectual property.” Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let’s try calling it that — not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly” — and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse.
QUESTION 3. What would a healthy public domain look like? What would happen if artistic achievement was seen as a “cultural achievement” and not an singular individual expression?
QUESTION 4. This loops back, to a degree, on the first question, but broadens it from the instance of a "work of art" to artists themselves - please write at least one short paragraph about an artist who has influenced you - talk about what attracted you to them, and how you’ve adopted some approach, insight, process, or outlook they’ve expressed, while putting your own “spin” on it.