Arts/Literature

Should artists retain the rights to their work and images after they die? Jane Austen, zombies and undead mashups

What do we want from our art – novelty or originality?

“The… idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.” – Neil Postman

I think maybe it started with John Wayne.

The Duke and the King of Cool (image courtesy MovieMarket)

The Duke and the King of Cool (image courtesy MovieMarket)

That icon of of Real America® appeared in beer commercials  for Coors – even though he’d been dead about fifteen years. I won’t spoil your day by embedding one of these atrocities, but I’ll provide a link so you can enjoy the work of whatever weasels the Real American Beer Company® hired who foisted upon the American public this ad to sell their reconstituted dog urine.

Resurrecting the Silent Generation’s favorite cowboy wasn’t enough for our consumer culture, though. Ford Motor Company, looking to begin selling Real American Cars® again since they’d ceded that task to smarter, more forward thinking car makers from our Old Mortal Enemy®, Japan, decided to add some cool to their piece of junk – I mean innovative new car design by resurrecting a Baby Boomer icon (a guy so cool he got a name check in a Rolling Stones song), Steve McQueen. McQueen had been dead seventeen years.

And so we entered the era of the Undead cultural icon as marketing tool. Technology was harnessed to make us want to drink shitty beer because Hondo supposedly does or drive a shitty car because Frank Bullitt supposedly does. 

Now, of course, we have much more advanced technologies than those used to interpolate John Wayne and Steve McQueen into commercials. There’s been much chatter concerning the ethical questions raised by the the more advanced interpolations of recently dead Carrie Fisher (in her original young Princess Leia persona from the original 1977 Star Wars film, not her recent cameo as the mature Princess in the forthcoming film) and the long dead Peter Cushing who died in 1979, a couple of years after he appeared in the first Star Wars (now known as Episode IV).

The question here is a surprisingly complex one that seems on the surface to be straightforward: does an artist, whether a performing artist like Cushing (or now, alas, Carrie Fisher) or a creative artist like, say, John Lennon, or, to wander further afield chronologically, Jane Austen, own the rights to his or her work after death? And to what extent can an artist’s original work be appropriated by other artists for their work?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

I mention Jane Austen specifically above because I am currently reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies which I received as a Christmas gift. The novel begins with Grahame-Smith’s rewrite of one of the most famous opening sentences in all of literature:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the most loved (or perhaps hated by students assigned to read it) books in the canon. Its lovers include intellectuals and scholars as well as romance novel lovers (including those fans once disdainfully referred to as “Janeites.” readers whose intellectual grasp of Austen’s aims in the novel are “girl meets boy/girl loses boy/girl gets boy back”).

Grahame-Smith’s novel is, of course, a spoof. It is also an example of a practice very common in our post-postmodernist age: the appropriation of an artist’s (or artists’) work for the purpose of creating a new work. It is well known (and liked) in popular music and goes by the term mashup (link provides several examples).

Grahame-Smith combines his zombie silliness (and the zombie part of the work is pure silliness, with dojo trained Bennet sisters skilled at dispatching zombies with swords and throwing stars performing like kung fu movies stars) with Jane Austen’s elegant prose in a mashup done for laughs, particularly as Grahame-Smith affects, sometimes successfully, more often not, Austen’s language and style describing the zombie destruction proceedings.

This kind of art/artist appropriation raises questions, at least for me, old fogy that I may be. Do these sorts of “new works of art” create interest in the artists, especially the “no longer relevant” artists whose work gets mashed up? Does mashing up the Beatles with Shaggy make people curious about the Beatles’ music? To belabor the point, does adding Steve McQueen to a Ford commercial make people want to watch a Steve McQueen film? Does adding a zombie story line to Pride and Prejudice make readers want to read Jane Austen’s novels?

Maybe. No data on this seems to have been gathered thus far. Perhaps some should be – it would make the conversations about the ethics of appropriating artists’ work conversations better informed. But the underlying issue is something more problematic – and more morbid – and more sinister.

Remember the brouhaha about sampling when hip hop first emerged as a major artistic and commercial force? Many musicians, mostly rockers, threatened lawsuits over copyright infringement. One of those who protested strongly was Frank Zappa. Zappa threatened swift legal retribution against any artists who sampled his work. Since Zappa’s death in 1993, however, his estate has become more “flexible” about allowing appropriation of his music.

Here’s are more questions: What rights should an artist have if another artist appropriates his/her work and creates work the artist whose work is appropriated doesn’t like? This seems like it has a simple answer, but there are complicating matters – like artistic freedom and originality which are both in a state of flux right now in ways they never have been.

As I asked before, does an artist’s ability to control use/appropriation of his/her work end at death? What about an artist’s image? (this is especially important for performing artists). Should copyright law protect the use of the work of artists who died before copyright law was enacted (Jane Austen’s work, for example)?

And there’s the role of technology. It is simple enough to grasp how digitization of media allows mashups, sampling, and CGI interpolation of dead actors possible. But there are digitization methods for appropriating language, too, and it would be interesting to know if Seth Grahame-Smith used a form of collation or digitally based linguistic analysis to aid him in trying to emulate Austen’s language and style.

Finally, there’s an aesthetic issue. Mashups are novelties compared to the original work of a Frank Zappa or the Beatles. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a novelty compared to the original work by Jane Austen.

The question then becomes, what do we want from our art – novelty or originality?

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