The cultural wasteland sans intellectual propery

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy
Aeneas Flees Burning Troy
I found the old edition of The New Republic under Marty Peretz a bit too smug, not being as heterodox or unpredictable as it fancied itself. But the new Chris Hughes owned version does make me miss the old TNR sometimes. It’s now predictably liberal, a more high-toned and moderate sibling of The Nation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that space is more consumer driven (i.e., people want to confirm their priors), and it would have been nice if a billionaire like Hughes would be more open to looking at viewpoints in a genuinely original manner. That being said the Hughes owned TNR has expanded their cultural coverage in interesting directions. But sometimes the results are uneven. This piece cross-posted from The New Statesman, Bored With Hollywood Blockbusters? Blame Digital Piracy, seems to be very close to trolling.

The author makes some valid points, in particular the ad hoc nature of many arguments for the principled usage of file sharing. But the headline itself is grossly misleading. The domination of comic themed blockbusters at the movies, with thin plots and zero characterization, derives from many factors. The international consumer market (read: China) in media is obviously the biggest driver of the change. The rise of the lowest common denominator popcorn film is a function of the expanding nature of the audience which Hollywood feels it needs to satisfy. Headline aside, there is also the argument that free music downloads is driving musicians into penury. My question to this is when has the modal musician ever not been economically marginal? Back in the days of CDs some musicians became very wealthy, but it was still a winner-take-all game. Probably more hard hit by the collapse of revenues in the music industry has been the ancillary employment around the music itself. And these arguments in favor of intellectual property always strike me as peculiar because they often don’t grapple with the historical reality that intellectual property rights have been absent for almost the whole of human history, and somehow humans did produce works of great artistry.

To be fair the author has a whole book, Freeloading, in which he expounds on this topic. There might be more there than can be distilled into a magazine piece. But let’s take the author’s argument at face value, that creativity will be abolished by the lack of enforcement of intellectual property.* Is that disastrous in all domains? It looks as if piracy has resulted in a recession of the porn industry. What if all porn production ceased today. Wouldn’t the “back catalog” suffice? There are only so many things you can do in porn, so a lot of the new production must be driven by “enthusiasts” who are looking for the next new star. But is this the standard consumer of porn? I suspect most individuals are not particular discerning in what they whack off to, certain preconditions being met. Similarly, in music we have Beethoven, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles, Nirvana, and N.W.A. Is something in the future going to be that much better? In fiction there is also an enormous back catalog. The vast majority of Victorian fiction is out of print, and there may even be no extant copies. What a waste. But how many ways can you tell a story? You get the picture.

My point with this thought experiment is to suggest that human creativity exists to fulfill particular urges, on the part of both producers and consumers, and any particular institutional scaffold around the process of production and consumption is a historical contingency. Going back to the headline of the TNR piece, the early 1980s saw the collapse of “New Hollywood” for reasons of capitalism. The rise of superhero films in the teens of the 21st century is simply the next stage in this process. I suspect in the future if you want to produce novel high concept art you are unlikely to be able to do so via the conventional capitalist means of production. And why would we be surprised by that? The production of high art in the past was often underwritten by elites, from Virgil’s Aenied to Beethoven’s symphonies. As for low mass art, that will always have an audience, so capitalism will suffice.

* A minor sidenote not acknowledged in this piece is that the heyday of file sharing in the 2000s is in abatement due to the emergence of services such as Netflix and Spotify, which can provide streaming for a modest fee. Of course the fees on a per unit basis are not particular high, and so may have the same effect.

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