Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Artistic Pirate

Anyone who has taken one of Prof. Harold Jaffe's classes is familiar with his motto: Find a seam. Plant a mine. Slip away. Repeated on his website, the motto exemplifies his commitment to the artist's role as society's Trickster-Hero. Why Trickster-Hero? Because the old images of the artist as Warrior-Hero, like Hemingway, or Romantic-Hero, like Marilyn, can be too easily faked or too readily co-opted. The Trickster-Hero can evade such capitalist traps -- for a while, at least.

The Trickster-Hero is the topic of Matt Mason's The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism. Mason's "pirates" -- graffiti artists, music and film samplers, information appropriators -- don't resemble Robin Hood or Captain Jack Sparrow. They are artists: their "thievery" consists of excluding those who would exploit that art for money. Hence, they "reinvent" capitalism.

Why do artists now live like "pirates"? Because they want to decide how their art is used. They have seen artists treated as product, overworked, used up and killed off by agents, companies and corporations created to maximize profits from that art. They have seen idealism being rebranded to sell erectile dysfunction remedies. They have seen "rebels" who became rich for being rebellious work to stifle that same instinct in their audience.

"We live in a world where things we used to pay for, such as music, movies, and newspapers, are now available for free. But things we used to reproduce for free, such as seeds and pigs, have to be paid for. This is a world where we need to understand the finer points of the pirate mentality...."
Mason's book contains useful how-tos for aspiring pirate-artists, plus bonus real-life examples of famous pirate raids on corporate culture, including describing how Madonna was punked. Yes, that Madonna, once celebrated for her ability to market rebellion, is now poster girl for a failed Warner Bros. pirate-squashing. When she f-bombed a downloading site, workers retaliated:
"Frustrated by a globalized music industry force-feeding them plastic pop music, hackers, remixers, and activists began to mobilize within hours against Madonna.... Days after the decoy files were released, new versions of Madonna's a capella outburst started springing up.... Madonna's official site was hacked and every track from her new album, the real tracks, were pinned to the home page free for anyone to download. Across the top of the page, the remixer posted a response to Madonna, the music industry, and everyone else threatening to stand in free culture's way: THIS IS WHAT THE FUCK I THINK I'M DOING."
Way to go, pirates!

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