Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I'd Like Mine In Green

Much has been said over the last couple weeks in the ranging argument about art and whether it is morally/culturally/aesthetically acceptable to modify it, with the main disputants being Steven of Flos Carmeli, Tom of Disputations and ZippyCatholic.

The 'cultural conversation' side of the argument seems to be of the opinion that editing a work to remove content you object to is morally upright and culturally unproblematic because once an author completes his work, it is the property of the current owner and of society as a whole, rather than the artist. The artist thus, the theory goes, has no particular right to never see his work changed.

My own thinking is that a piece of art represents a crystallization of the artist's thought, and thus of him. And in that sense, while one is certainly welcome to create derivative works which make one's "commentary" on a existing piece of artwork (in the world of music variations on a theme are sometimes more interesting than the original theme), changing or destroying the original piece seems far too grave a step -- erasing, as it does, the distilled piece of thought and personhood which the artist left behind. (Obviously, this all has to do with modifying an original work. Clearly, modifying a copy of the original is of less import to the wider culture, regardless of whether it is morally or aesthetically right in and of itself.)

I wonder, however, how the pro-modification disputant would address the question of a strictly aesthetic desire to modify an original work. Say someone decided that the Venus of Urbino should have a cat next to her instead of a lapdog. Would it be part of the 'cultural conversation' to paint out the dog and replace it with a cat? Certainly, certain people might feel there is a moral imperative to put a stitch or two of clothing on Venus before she gets cold, but would those who support the idea that it would be already to throw a little drapery over her also support changing strictly aesthetic elements of the painting?

Or say you really felt that Blue Boy should have been Green Boy. Would one be justified in painting over the original. Obviously, one could make a knock-off painting, and some have to varying effect. (Goodness...) But could one modify the original?

And if not, does this not suggest to those who are holding that modifying a work for moral reasons is acceptable that there is some degree of weight to the original creation of the artist, such that even in their own view one must have a sufficiently good reason to change a work of art, beyond mere whim?

1 comment:

Steven said...

Dear Darwin,

I would say that there are two pro-modifications sides, depending on how one defines modification. The first contends that it is right and proper to modify the original of a work, thus changing intent, here I am in complete accord with what you've written here.

But according to another disputant, the creation of a derivitive work from the original is a kind of modification, be it expurgation, parody, or editing. In this case, I would argue, so long as the original has been left in tact and the purpose of the modification (if expurgation, etc.) made clear, you've created a new work that may be more palatable to some audiences, but which is fundamentally different from the original. Now in the case of parody and using another author's characters in a different scenario--I don't regard these as modifications at all, but I get the sense that others do.

So long as I am left with the original to return to, I do think its an important part of the cultural conversation to see what people will do with a work. For example Sir John Suckling's translations of Martial and Catullus as opposed to those of the 18th century and those of the 20th century.

There is a free borrowing, a cultural conversation, which I would contend is sensitively dependent upon the preservation of the originals in all respects. So, as far as that goes, I think we are mostly in accord. And in most case derivitive works--expurgations, editings, reordering, often don't improve a work so much as give us a cultural artifact--a new look at the work.