Charlie Hebdo and Freedom of Expression in Art

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It has been only two weeks since twelve people were killed at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo by two gunmen. In the aftermath of the tragic events, there has been an outpouring of emotion throughout the world. Among these have been many peaceful protests in support of the magazine and the victims of the attacks. However other reactions have not been so sedate with anger being directed toward the magazine and its depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. With such strongly held views on both sides many questions about free speech have been raised. Most notably, when it comes to satire–whether in writing, art, or any other form–how far is too far? Does an artist’s right to freedom of expression trump the rights of those that might take offense?

In the United States the answer would seem to be a resounding and clear yes. After all Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are featured in the First Amendment. In our history, revolution, protests and challenging the status quo have played a large role in shaping the country’s character. In turn the arts have been utilized to inspire and bring about change. In writing we have numerous authors including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, Jack Kerouac, Maya Angelou and many others whose voices and experiences changed the way we looked at the world and each other. In theatre we have Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” (which was famously temporarily shut down by the WPA to avoid government and union restrictions), Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” which features one of the most poignant commentaries and critiques of racism “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” and of course boundary pushing works such as “Hair” and “Rent.” American protest music has a long history from early colonial protest songs like “Revolutionary Tea” (which celebrates the Boston Tea Party) to the anthems of Pro-Union workers, to the music of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. Thus attempts at censorship can and have often been met with resistance from the courts and the general population.

However, as some have pointed out, things get a bit more complicated when we consider practices that we seem to hold in contrast with our ideals. In an article from The Huffington Post, writer Pia de Jong noted the muted response to the shooting in the United States. She believed the reason for this lies in the country’s multi-cultural roots stating, “Self-censorship and hypocrisy are the main instruments that keep the many groups away from each other’s throats.” She also noted that unlike the free for all of European Press, the media in the US is very much in line with political correctness (de Jong). This view was echoed by columnist David Brooks who wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “If [Charlie Hebdo] had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” The media’s coverage of the tragedy seems to confirm these points as many newspapers and all American news networks have chosen to censor or simply refuse to show the offending artwork (Bankoff).

Obviously what happened at Charlie Hebdo is a tragedy. No one deserves to die over a picture, or any other piece of art for that matter. Moreover, I appreciate the ability of satire to expose hypocrisy and injustice within society. However, as an artist I couldn’t see myself going out of the way to offend a group (or groups) of people the way Charlie Hebdo does. In the end there is probably no clear answer to that question “how far is too far?” Instead it is dependent on all of us to (as David Brooks so eloquently wrote) “…maintain that delicate balance between the standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.”

Works Cited and Bibliography

Bankoff, Caroline. “Some Newspapers and All Major American News Networks Decide Against Showing Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad Cartoons.” Daily Intelligencer. NYMag, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Brooks, David. “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.
“The Cradle Will Rock.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Jong, Pia De. “When Charlie Met Charlie.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Levs, Josh. “10 Killed, Churches Torched in Protests over Charlie Hebdo – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Schofield, Hugh. “Massacre at French Magazine Office.” BBC News. BBC, 07 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

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Stealing Artistically

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One of the main rules many artists have been taught to take seriously is avoiding plagiarism or copying someone else’s work. However in the past few weeks some of my favorite artists have become embroiled in scandals and debates relating to this topic.

The first story is that of Led Zeppelin who are currently being sued by representatives of the band Spirit for allegedly ripping off the guitar line for the infamous “Stairway to Heaven”. While the story has gained plenty of publicity it’s actually one that many fans of rock music have been aware of for several years (Chappell). (Cracked.com, for instance, mentioned the similarities between the songs back in 2010.) This is not the first time Led Zeppelin have been accused of plagiarism. In 1972 the band was sued by ARC Records who claimed that “The Lemon Song” was plagiarized from the Howlin’ Wolf number “Killing Floor” (turnmeondeadman.com) In 1985 the band was again sued, this time by blues musician Willie Dixon who claimed the song “Whole Lotta Love” borrowed heavily from his song “You Need Love” (DeGroot).The most recent lawsuit against the band was in 2010; the plaintiff was musician Jake Holmes who claimed Led Zeppelin had plagiarized his song “Dazed and Confused” (Ibid). In all three cases the band settled out of court and the respective musicians have been given songwriting credits on reissues of the albums (though Jake Holmes has merely been given a credit of “Inspired by” on the Celebration Day album and DVD (www.turnmeondeadman.com).

The second story is that of Jack White and The Black Keys. The two bands have had a bit of feud for several years. However in a recent Rolling Stone article, White accused The Keys of ripping off his sound stating, “There are kids at school who dress like everybody else, because they don’t know what to do, and there are musicians like that, too. I’ll hear TV commercials where the music’s ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it’s me. Half the time, it’s the Black Keys…” White also went on to suggest that there are musicians that open up a market (his example Amy Winehouse) and those that merely follow in their footsteps (his examples Duffy, Lana Del Rey, and Adele). White has since apologized for his statements on his website.

Both of these stories are intriguing to me (obviously since they are both about artists that I enjoy and listen to on a regular basis). However both bring up some interesting questions about copying and plagiarism. When does “inspiration” turn into plagiarism? Where is the fine line between being in the company of your favorite artists or merely being a “copy-cat?” The answer might be more complicated then we think.

First we might need to review the definition of plagiarism. According to plagiarism.org (who utilize the definition of the Merriam Webster dictionary) “to plagiarize means; to steal or pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own, to use (another’s production) without crediting the source, to commit literary theft, to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (www.plagiarism.org). The site states plagiarism is an act of fraud that involves stealing someone’s work and lying about it afterwards (Ibid). It also notes that under US Law the expression of ideas are protected under copyright laws as intellectual property as long as they are recorded in some way (Ibid). Obliviously the definition is stringent though the site also notes plagiarism can be avoided by simply crediting any sources utilized (Ibid).

However there are those that challenge the conventional ideas about plagiarism and copyright law. Among these individuals are Kirby Ferguson and Austin Kleon. Both men argue that nothing is really “original” and that most creative works are a mash-up or remix of previous ideas. Ferguson in particular takes aim at copyright law stating, “American Copyright and Patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead these laws…use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property we are all building on and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.”

So what is an artist to do in a world where nothing is original but copyright laws rule the day? Well according to Austin Kleon (author of the book Steal Like an Artist) the answers lie in understanding your creative genealogy (i.e. the family tree of artist you admire and are similar to) and then collecting ideas from those artists and transforming those ideas into something greater. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Though as Led Zeppelin might attest, citing your sources can help too.

Bibliography and Works Cited

Beauchemin, Molly. “Jack White Slams The Black Keys, Suggests Once Again That They’ve Ripped Off His Sound.” Pitchfork. N.p., 30 May 2014. Web. 5 June 2014. .

Chappell, Bill. “Led Zeppelin Sued Over ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Guitar Line.” NPR. NPR, 20 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

DeGroot, Joey. “7 Songs That Led Zeppelin Ripped Off.” Music Times RSS. N.p., 20 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Ferguson, Kirby. “Kirby Ferguson: Embracing the Remix.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Kleon, Austin “Steal Like An Artist: Austin Kleon at TEDxKC.” By Austin Kleon. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “The Lemon Song”” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism?” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Whole Lotta Love”” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Ramakrishnan, Rohan. “The 5 Most Famous Musicians Who Are Thieving Bastards.” Cracked.com. N.p., 06 May 2010. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Scalese, Roberto. “Stairway to Theftin’: Led Zeppelin Sued in Most Entertaining Lawsuit Ever.” Boston.com. The New York Times, 03 June 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“What Is Plagiarism?” Plagiarism.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. .

White, Jack, III. “An Apology and Explanation from Jack White.” Jack White. N.p., 31 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Navigating the Creative U-Turn

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I haven’t written on this blog in about two weeks and I’ve had trouble picking up the guitar. It’s made me feel some guilt as I do tend to have a bit of a work/success oriented nature i.e. sometimes I feel my value as a person comes from what I produce or what I am doing with my life. However I’ve felt a slight sense of panic too. For most of my life, if not my whole life, I’ve wanted to be an artist in some sense and for the past few weeks I’ve suddenly been questioning myself about whether I have what it takes and whether I even want to be an artist anymore. In short I’ve been experiencing a creative U-turn (or perhaps in my case it’s more of a crossroads).

The Creative U-Turn is a term that was coined by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. It can be defined as a point when an artist stops pursuing a creative goal or project; generally as a result of fear, negativity, or pain. Creative U-turns can take different forms depending on the type of art and the artists involved. Cameron notes many examples of this; the painter who picks a fight with the gallery owner at his first group show, the musicians who record a demo that gets an enthusiastic response and then stop working together, the screenwriter who doesn’t make any changes on his script for an agent are all examples of creative U-turns (Cameron,155). However, while U-Turns can take different forms Cameron theorizes they are usually a result of some sort of fear.

How should an artist deal with a U-turn? Well, according to Cameron, we should extend ourselves some sympathy and compassion (Cameron, 156). Creativity can be scary and in fact life itself is scary (Ibid). It helps to remember that artists are not the only ones to struggle with U-turns and various forms of self sabotage (Ibid). Lawyers, Doctors, Office Workers, and Retail Workers struggle with their own forms of self sabotage too. Cameron also notes that Creative U-Turns and failures are often a part of successful creative careers. She notes the story of Blake Edwards who spent seven years in a self-imposed exile in Switzerland following being fired from one of his own films (Ibid, 157). He returned to directing after deciding that using his creativity would be a better way to heal then sitting on the sidelines and he became aggressively productive with his main regret being the time it took for him to get to that point (Ibid). 

Sometimes a U-Turn might even be necessary. In this case I’m thinking about author Liz Gilbert. After the major success of her book Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert suddenly found herself with millions of readers eagerly awaiting her next project. Over the next year she wrote a first draft of what would eventually become Committed. However after completing the manuscript she realized that something wasn’t right. In her words, “The voice didn’t sound like me. The voice didn’t sound like anybody. The voice sounded like something coming through a megaphone, mistranslated.” Gilbert put that manuscript away turned her attention to her garden and other pursuits (Gilbert, xiv). She wrote, “…this was not exactly a crisis, that period when I could not…figure out how to write naturally…I even started wondering if maybe I was finished as a writer. Not being a writer didn’t seem like the worst fate in the world…but I honestly couldn’t tell yet. I had to spend a lot more hours in the tomato patch…before I could sort this thing out” (Ibid). Ultimately Gilbert’s U-Turn ended when she realized that while she couldn’t promise that her next book would satisfy millions of readers, she could write something that she needed to write (Ibid). She limited the audience in her mind from the millions of expectant fans to twenty seven important women in her life and wrote the book for them (Ibid, xv). Committed was published in 2010 and since then Gilbert has continued her successful career publishing her recent novel The Signature of All Things in 2013.

Recovering from a creative U-turn can require a great deal of compassion and patience. According to Cameron, the first step is admitting it. You have to say to say to yourself “Yes, I did react negatively towards fear and pain. Yes, I do need help” (Cameron, 157). The next step is to figure out what obstacles are the most intimidating. In Cameron’s words, “An agent jump may frighten you more then a workshop jump. A review jump may be okay while a rewrite jump scares your talent to death” (Ibid). Often at this stage Cameron advises looking for help from other successful artists i.e. asking them how they have done successful rewrites, gotten agents, recovered from bad reviews or conquered whatever challenge that you are currently facing (Ibid). Self reflection is a key piece too. Cameron notes that before any project it’s a good idea to ask yourself questions that remove any blocks between yourself and the work (Ibid, 159). These questions are as follows.

1) What am I angry about? The goal is to make a list about any anger you have related to the project at hand. Examples could be anything from resentment about being the second artist asked to do a show, to anger at an editor or director who constantly nitpicks your work (Cameron, 159).

2) What am I afraid of? The goal with this question is to identify any and all fears about the project or people connected to it (Ibid). You might say in this case, “I’m afraid of people not liking my work,” “I’m afraid of not being able to live up to my past projects,” or “I’m afraid that the only reason I got the part was my competitor had a falling out with the director and now everyone will compare me to him.”

3) Have I left anything out? With this question you are supposed to ask yourself if your current issues are all there is. Have you left out any anger or fear that seems inconsequential or trivial (Ibid)? This might be the part where you say “Ok…I am somewhat afraid of seeing that one musician/writer/director/etc. that’s always so condescending when he talks to me at any events.”

4)What do I stand to gain by not doing this project? With this question you need to find out exactly how you benefit from any self sabotage. The most common example might be “Well if I don’t perform/write this piece no one can criticize it or me.” This is by no means the only example though; others might be “I can criticize others from a less vulnerable position ” or “My editor/mother/significant other/ex will worry about me” (Ibid).

Once you have asked these questions and identified all your angers and fears you can then be more able to let them go. At this point Cameron advises making a deal with your creative force and saying “You take care of the quality and I’ll take care of the quantity” (Ibid, 160). Ultimately, whether we reflect and make our deals with the universe or simply follow Blake Edwards’ example of going back to work and picking up where we left off, navigating our creative U-turns is a challenging but often valuable part of our journey as artists. I hope that you will share some of your own creative U-turns and recoveries in the comments section. As for me, I might just go pick up the guitar.

Bibliography and Works Cited

“Biography.” Official Website for Best Selling Author Elizabeth Gilbert. Dave Cahill/River Net Computers, 2013. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/&gt;.

Cameron, Julia. “Recovering A Sense Of Compassion.” The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992, 2002. 154-60. Print.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. “A Note to the Reader.” Introduction. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. Xiv-vi. Print.

 

 

The Importance of Feedback

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In my last post regarding competitions I mentioned the importance of feedback and constructive criticism. However I did want to go more in depth into this topic. Especially because I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the competitions I’ve taken part in the past few years where judges will not provide feedback following the competition. I’m not sure why this is although I suspect it’s most likely due to, shall we say, vitriolic responses to a loss. While I can understand the desire to avoid such confrontations, as someone who values constructive criticism not being able to have any feedback whatsoever can add even more bitterness to an already disappointing situation.

Interestingly enough, this desire for feedback is apparently very common among my fellow millennials. In a piece in Psychology Today which discussed the millennial generation and their tendency to draw ire from older generations, one of the traits discussed was the constant need for feedback (Ellin, 63). Unfortunately the article noted that this can be seen by others as a bid for attention, a lack of know-how, or simply irritating (Ibid). However, the true motivation of the behavior (which I can certainly attest to as a millennial) comes from a desire to please (Ibid). Ultimately the desire for feedback is simply wanting to know that you’re doing a good job (or if you’re doing a bad job what you can do to improve) as well as a possible desire for mentorship (Ibid).

As an artist I feel that constructive feedback is highly necessary for improvement. After all, if a person doesn’t know that they are doing something wrong they will most likely never improve (and that’s true whether you are talking about the arts, the workplace, relationships, or any number of other topics).

Of course there is the argument that the artist shouldn’t rely on receiving feedback and to an extent I would agree. It’s important for those of us who are artists to have a basic level of confidence in ourselves and our work and enough self knowledge to be able to critique ourselves. Moreover, whatever judgment is cast on an artist’s work, they should consider the source of the feedback and weigh it against what they know about themselves and their work to decide if it is truly important. For instance, I discussed in my last post how I received feedback on my performance in a talent show with differing opinions among the judges. With that feedback I was able to cope with my loss by understanding that the judge who had experience with the music that I performed liked my performance very much while the other judges did not have that same experience so I did not have to take their criticisms to heart.

However I appreciate feedback and constructive criticism because I feel they are given when the person actually does believe in you, your work, and knows that you can improve. In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens Sean Covey told a hilarious story about having sing in front of several music students and be critiqued as part of the requirements for private voice lessons (Covey). While a young man who sang a song from Les Miserables (which according to Covey sounded better than the original Broadway production) was critiqued, Covey after an “interesting” performance of “On the Street Where You Live” was simply told “That was great Sean” (Ibid). While the moral of the story is more about Covey overcoming his fear of performing in front of other people, there was a more subtle lesson that I saw as an artist. Even though Covey was shocked at the critiques of what he felt were amazing performances, as a singer I recognized the critiques as being a sign that the other vocal students recognized the talent of their peers and knew that they could improve whereas Covey’s performance met with no criticism because the students probably felt there was very little that could be done to help him progress. With this perspective in mind it can be highly upsetting to not receive feedback. Interestingly one of the best descriptions of why this can be distressing comes from article 5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You by David Wong where he writes

 “If you apply for a job, which is worse — a rejection letter, or no reply at all? The former is bad, but the latter is dismissive, and that’s a thousand times worse–like you didn’t even open their resume before tossing it in the trash.”

 Ultimately, we will most likely have to take whatever feedback we can and understand that there will be those who are unwilling to give it. However, if I could give any advice to competition judges, I would advise them to allow some form of feedback for the contestants. I’m not saying that a judge should be subjected to vitriol from sore losers but simply talking to a contestant, having a chat later via email or phone, or allowing a performer to review any score sheets and notes would go a long way towards helping an artist (or anyone for that matter) develop more fully and thus could ease the sting that can come with an unsuccessful performance. If you are willing to accept the responsibility to judge a competition then you should be willing to at least provide some form of feedback to those that you pass judgment on.

 ***Readers: What is your perspective on feedback and its importance to your work? Why do you think judges or others might be reluctant to give feedback? Post in the comments below.

Bibliography and Works Cited

Covey, Sean. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.

Ellin, Abby. “The Beat (Up) Generation.” Psychology Today Mar.-Apr. 2014: 56-63. Print.

Wong, David. “5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You.” Cracked.com. N.p., 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. <http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-ways-youre-accidentally-making-everyone-hate-you/&gt;.