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Lawrence Lessig & Shepard Fairey on Art, Commerce and Corruption

Thursday night, we were treated to an insightful and inspiring production at the New York Public Library as part of their Live from the NYPL series and sponsored by Wired. Titled “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy”, the event featured Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons among other things, and Shepard Fairey, whom you may have heard of recently. Moderated by cultural historian Steven Johnson, it intended to focus on the future of art and ideas in an age when practically anything can be copied, pasted, downloaded, sampled, and re-imagined. Less about commerce and more about moral and congressional corruption crippling artistic expression, the panel was self-admittedly pretty one-sided about the whole debate.

Johnson, the 35th most popular man on Twitter, according to Live from the NYPL Director Paul Holdengräber, opened the evening with the famously reclipped Charlie Rose video by Andrew Fillipone, Jr, in which Rose appears to be interviewing himself with little success about the future of the internet. Johnson laid the groundwork for the evening in his assessment that, though these issues were timely due to the widespread and accessible nature of technology and information, they were also timeless – old values that we have been wrestling with for centuries. He invoked the original ‘remix’ by Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin’s insistence that ideas get better as they flow and circulate, attracting “the attentions of the ingenious.” To his panelists, he posed the question: “Where do we think innovation and creativity come from? From building walls and protecting them, or from sharing and expressing them?”

Lessig picked up the idea that the now-famous Fairey was not the first to base his art on others work, and drove it further home with images of Warhol’s Marilyn, Will.i.am’s Yes We Can, and music by Girl Talk. “Remixing with new voices,” he argued, “is creative practice.” What is different now from when Jefferson or Warhol were working isn’t this idea – it’s the law. He presented an exploration of what the law could and should do. It’s intention being to produce motivation for creatives to create, the law protects artwork and creates ways for an artist to be compensated. However, as when record labels pull YouTube videos of babies dancing along to the radio, the cost often outweighs the benefit. In favor of copyright deregulation, Lessig argued that the presumption should be that permission is free (rather that the presumption that it is not),  protecting the Remix artwork in question. Instead, current regulation and public policy is fueled by corruption and campaign dollars to make money for Congressmen and lawyers. This regulation is not going to stop the remixing anyway, only criminalize it.

Shepard Fairey then took the stage to “informally” walk us through the now familiar images that have marked his career and rise to the front pages. From Andre the Giant to the Obama/HOPE poster, Fairey reflected on his discovery that images in the public space that weren’t advertising brought back wonder to the public space. Though it was the random-seeming ambiguity that drew people to his early Giant and Obey images, he moved to remixing images that meant something when he saw that message was more potent when it drew upon other known references. As for the Obama poster itself, he said, “forget me, forget [photographer] Mannie Garcia, the image is of and about Obama, his abilities as an orator and to bring people together, and it’s about the colors red and blue meeting in the middle”.

Though his now iconic image and style have been riffed upon countless times themselves, Fairey said he believed the spoofs only give more value to the original – to which he added that the photograph he controversially worked from was out of date, out of the news cycle, and out of mind, and yet here suddenly everyone’s talking about it. He concluded that he personally will only ‘go after’ real bootleg operations reselling his work. For the most part, the work he sees being done with his art reminds him of his earlier days photocopying album covers on his mom’s copy machine to create stencils to make teeshirts, and he doesn’t exactly want the FBI busting down his, or anyone else’s, door over that.

We were left with the question, “Okay, but is it original?” To which Lessig quoted Andy Warhol: “It is the duty of responsible men to restate the obvious.” Or, as Shepard Fairy put it, “when original art means taking a can of paint and throwing it into an airplane turbine which shoots it onto a canvas fifty feet away, maybe I don’t want original.” The panelists agreed that there is creativity within the recycling, and it is only when we recognize and encourage it that we can see where it will take us.