March 3, 2004

The New Obscenity

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 10:11 am

Used to be, one good way to artistic notoriety was to be put on trial for obscenity. Sure, it wasn’t an easy experience, but it catapulted debate about the quality of your work into the top ranks of artistic discussion. And, as an added bonus, it created a certain illicit thrill around the consumption of your product. Obscenity trials did wonders for the careers of James Joyce, Henry Miller, and of course “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”

Now, of course, you’d have to get as desperate a publicity hound as the pre-September 11th Rudy Giuliani on your side to get anyone worked up about the offensiveness of your art. And even then your chances of getting into any real legal trouble would be just about nil. But a new path has opened — copyright violation.

That’s right, copyright violation is the new obscenity. Create a piece of illegal art and the chances aren’t bad that a giant apparatus of authority will come crashing down on you and drag you on a long, painful tour through the legal system. And drag your work into the public spotlight at the same time.

The example that leaps to mind for most is probably Negativland. The U2 outing wasn’t their best artistic product by any means. But it reached cult status, and made the band’s career, after the massive legal battle that occurred around it. More recently, think of DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album — a blending of Jay-Z’s Black Album vocals with musical collages from the Beatles’s White Album — now gathering momentum (e.g., last week’s Grey Tuesday). The legal battle is still at the skirmish stage, but it certainly looks to have career-defining potential for Mr. Mouse. Meanwhile, DJ Spooky looks poised to one-up his colleague by combining Jay-Z’s vocals with music drawn from the Black Album of RIAA suck-ups Metallica. (preview here)

Personally, I agree with Nick’s assertion that we need something more than collage art to explain the importance of fighting draconian copyright laws and technologies. At the same time, I think these modern battles over art that defies current copyright law are probably useful. Old efforts to enforce obscenity laws against artists represented an official attempt to deny changing sexual mores in the culture, but the resulting trials functioned more to rally people against such prudery. Similarly, current attempts to enforce copyright laws against artists who are operating within the remix culture will likely serve mainly as a talking point for discussions that presume such efforts to be misguided (like this post) and will hopefully help build resistance to the corporate copyright absolutists and those who do their will in the law making and law enforcement branches of government.