29 June 2011

Reagan and me

Author's note: This is a recycled post that dates back originally to 1997, when I was hand-coding my first web pages in error-filled HTML 2.0. Now that I'm using this blog for my public writing I'm moving the essay here. I've made a few edits for style but it's mostly unchanged. If you've read it already (or even if you haven't), feel free to ignore it. 

I grew up in Eureka, Illinois, a town of about four and a half thousand souls. Eureka was once called Walnut Grove, but had to change names for reasons which remain mysterious to me. Someone told me that the discovery of a second town in Illinois also named Walnut Grove necessitated the change. I tried to verify this story, but a glance through the atlas has revealed no other towns with that name. Perhaps this second Walnut Grove also had a re-christening. In any case, today you will find few walnut trees in Eureka; a blight in 1910 killed nearly all. Eureka was also once the Pumpkin Capital of the World, but somehow this title, too, has been lost. Today, our rivals in Morton, Illinois reign as pumpkin kings, and all that is left of Eureka's cannery is a crumbling brick ruin.

In fact, by the time I came along, Eureka had only one feature that distinguished it from other midwestern fourth-generation German farming towns: its college. And the college was famous because of Reagan. A tiny, private, church-affiliated school, Eureka College gave a diploma to future president Ronald Reagan in 1932. I was twelve when Reagan took the oath of office, and the town was bursting with pride. A large sign appeared in front of the court house which read "Visit Eureka College, alma mater of President Ronald Reagan. Go four blocks, then two blocks south." It was left for the seeker to decide in which direction the initial four blocks lay. A year or so later someone noticed the mistake and added a tiny carat and the scrawled word "west" on the sign.

The college quickly scrambled to capitalize on Reagan's fame. A portrait featured prominently on the prospectus and other recruiting materials. Eventually, a Reagan Scholarship was established—somewhat ironically, as Reagan himself claimed that his grade average in college was "closer to the C level required for [sports] eligibility than it was to straight A's." Perhaps the only one unhappy about the college's love-in with the President was my father, at that time Dean of the College. My dad was (and remains) an old-school Stevenson liberal, as well as something of an academic conservative; apart from the obvious political differences he had with the Reagan Administration, the lauding of an such an undistinguished scholar by a place of higher learning rankled him.

During his two terms in office, Reagan made several trips to Eureka for photo-ops and the occasional speech. A week before each arrival the secret service would arrive in town, black-suited and comlinked. No one knew exactly where they stayed—Eureka has no hotels. One day they simply appeared, pacing intently up and down Main Street past the five and dime, lurking amongst the greeting cards in the Hallmark store. For the most part they stuck to the Eureka College campus, where they endlessly staked out the dozen or so dormitories and classroom buildings, whispering into their sleeves to one another.

On one visit, shortly before the 1980 elections when he was still only a candidate, Reagan came to light a bonfire at Eureka College. The cheering students arrived early and the pom-pon squad did routines dressed in skirts in spite of the autumn cold. The high school pep band, which included my brother on trombone, played the Eureka High School Fight Song ("On, Eureka, win this game, fight to put our foes to shame") and the Star-Spangled Banner. They played those thirty-two bars again and again, for hours. The cheerleaders huddled together for warmth. Suddenly, Reagan's limo arrived and the Secret service pushed back the teenagers to either side as the band played Hail to the Chief. Reagan emerged, smiling, from his car; an agent handed him an already burning torch, which the President threw onto the pyre. A few waves to the cameras and he was gone.

A more substantial visit by Reagan came when he spoke at Eureka College's 1982 commencement. The speech took place in Eureka College's Reagan Athletic Center, and drew a large audience from the national press as well as from the town. Observers filled the basketball court; along one foul shot line sat a row of boom microphones and videocameras huddled together. To one side of the gymnasium, the hundred or so matriculating seniors of Eureka College sat, humble observers of their own graduation. As Dean of the College, my father was to appear on the dais sitting next to Reagan. For this he needed security clearance in the form of a color-coded lapel pin; I was warned not to follow him beyond the marked areas (that is, into the men's locker room). This was less than a year after John Hinkley Jr.'s attempt on Reagan's life, and my youthful and paranoid mind raced with images of agents swarming over me and beating me to the linoleum after one misstep. As a self-pitying teen with something of a persecution complex, the thought of such a fate appealed to me, but I stayed in my place anyway. Two weeks after the graduation, my grandmother called my father to congratulate him: a photograph of him sitting next to the President had been printed in People Magazine. "I never thought I'd see my son there!" she proudly exclaimed.

The town's biggest Reagan moment by far came two years later, when he spoke at Eureka College on its Founder's Day. In a speech sponsored by Time Magazine, Reagan was to detail his proposed Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (and, at the same time, putt the final nail into SALT II's coffin). Again he gave his speech in Reagan Athletic Center, and again the national press descended on Eureka, but in greater numbers that ever bofore or since. This time I was in the pep band, playing my brother's discarded trombone. We played an enthusiastic, but error-laden, version of Eureka College's song, 'Neath the Elms, while listening for the sound of the Air Force One helicopter overhead. The gymnasium was filled with an army reporters, photographers, and cameramen from every major network, newspaper, and magazine in the country. My father had in the intervening years resigned as Dean, and he and a couple dozen other faculty members decided to wear armbands to protest both Reagan's anti-Sandanista policy and his belligerence towards the Soviet Union. The college's administration had been forewarned, however, and seated the faculty far in the back, out of sight of the cameras. So with that potential embarrassment diffused, the speech went off without a hitch. After the President spoke and the applause ended, Reagan flew off to spend the night in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Behind him, the hundreds of reporters sent their copy off by wire. For one day at least, the byline of "Eureka, Illinois" would appear in papers around the world.

In 1986 I left Eureka to attend college. Like most teens from small, midwestern towns, I couldn't get away from home fast enough. That I was leaving one backwater town behind to attend school in another backwater town didn't matter much. Soon the day-to-day concerns of books, papers, and my sex life pushed aside political concerns. By the time Iran-Contra broke in 1987, it seemed more like a nightly sitcom to me than an national outrage. In 1988, the Reagan Administration was dead—long live the Bush Administration.

There was to be an epilogue to my dealings with Mr. Reagan. Starting in the final year of his presidency, Eureka College lobbied hard to receive his Presidential Library. For months, the college's administration held its breath, but to no avail: Simi Valley, California got the papers. In Eureka the rumor was that Nancy Reagan, never a fan of her husband's humble origins, had decided that a West Coast home for the library was more respectable. But the Reagans did throw a bone to Eureka in the form of the "Reagan Memorabilia." If Simi Valley was to get the major documents of the Presidency, Eureka was to get the clutter from the Reagan's attic: t-shirts, paperbacks, presentation gifts, and assorted bric-a-brac. Some items held marginal interest—several keys to several cities, for example—but on the whole the Memorabilia was the sort of detritus one finds at garage sales. The task of sorting out the few wheat berries from the plentiful chaff fell, coincidentally, upon my mother, newly-appointed librarian for Eureka College. Dutifully, she dusted off those items she could and placed them in glass cases on the first floor of Melick Library. But she still had several boxes of—well, of junk—left. What to do with those?

That Christmas, under the tree, all the children had special gifts, courtesy of the Reagans. My future wife, Marina, gratefully received Nancy's copy of Jane Seymore's Guide to Romantic Living, and I tore the wrapper off Ronald's first edition of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October—a novel Reagan reportedly called "un-put-downable." I've since given the book away unread, although I've seen and enjoyed the movie. But in this respect, at least, I resemble the former president—to judge by the wear on the pages, he only made it a third of the way through before setting the novel aside.

27 June 2011

Violators will be shot

My comments last week were a bit of a mess and I want to clarify. I'm not in favor of abolishing copyright or of people trying to profit from their work. But I do worry about what seems to be an ever-broadening sense of entitlement on the part of rights holders. Not only have copyright terms been extended to a point that they have long ceased to be incentives to creation (why should Disney create new characters when they can continue to coast on ones that are 90 years old?), but  also (and more troubling), rights holders are increasingly demanding absolute control over every word, note, or pixel that they produce. Forget about Warhol not being able to paint soup cans. We're living in a world where the French government claims copyright over any image of the Eiffel Tower at night.

Bullet hole brushes by obsidiandawn.com

In at least one work on Maisel's portfolio site, the image is largely made up of someone else's sculpture. Perhaps he had the sculptor's permission; I doubt he bothered to secure the permission of every architect whose work he's photographed. Of course all these photos are transformative. But all these photos rely upon the existing work of other artists, some to a greater extent than they rely upon any choice Maisel made or technique he employed. Whether Baio's work was transformative is something we can argue about but not something that will ever be decided in court.

When I read discussions of this situation here and elsewhere I'm struck most by the type of comment that begins "Well, I make my living as an artist, and I think..." More often than not, the comment goes on to defend Maisel and any and all claims of the rights of the artist against an antagonistic world. The implication is that the interests of the artist—and by extension, of Art—are served best by the broadest interpretation and application of copyright holders' rights. But is this true? Are artists better really better off playing hardball? And perhaps more importantly, how does such behavior serve the culture at large?

One word that I've seen a lot in defenses of Maisel is "respect"—as in, people need to respect the work that photographers do. That would be a reasonable point if Maisel's approach had been proportionate to the imagined harm. As it stands, it's like supporting Old Man Potter at the end of the block who likes to take out neighborhood dogs with a shotgun when they enter his yard. He's only defending his property.

The word I'd like to stress is "humility." All arts are derivative, but photography especially relies on photomechanical processes for its production. As much art as the photographer brings to the process, she still depends on pre-existing subjects. These includes the myriad work of architects, fashion designers, engineers, and even other photographers that make up the scenes she captures. I would hope that photographers, perhaps more than other visual artists, would understand that art is fodder for art, and that if we make it necessary to contact, ask permission from, and pay every possible rights holder out there, we are pricing a lot of people out of making a lot of work, and that's also bad for artists—and everyone.

23 June 2011

The sound of money

There's a fable that is told in many different versions around the world. In some European versions the hero is a wandering clown, but in the version I first read as a boy it was Ōoka Tadasuke, the 18th century Japanese magistrate who has many folktales attached to him. The story goes: an innkeeper overhears a poor student tell a friend that he always eats his rice as the innkeeper is preparing his fish, and thus the smell improves his meal. The angry innkeeper brings the student before Ōoka, demanding payment for the stolen smell. Ōoka responds by having the student spill his pocketful of coins from one hand to another, and tells the innkeeper that the smell of fish has been repaid by the sound of money.

The popularity of this story speaks to a deep, common-sense understanding that there are some things of value that are beyond commerce. The value of these things lies in part to their having no ownership, to the way they float in the air, literally or figuratively. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that indignant, entitled, or greedy individuals won't try to assert their claim.

Making the Internet rounds today is this disturbing piece on Waxy.org. Andy Baio, a tech enthusiast, made a series of chiptune versions of Miles Davis's tunes on Kind of Blue; when he distributed the files, he included a version of the Kind of Blue cover that had been highly pixelated. The original photographer of the Davis portrait, Jay Maisel, sued Baio for copyright infringement. The case settled out of court for $32K.

I'm not going to go into the legal issue here—I have strong feelings about the stupidity of the current state of intellectual property law and I'll bore you all some other time—but I do think that the story poses the question, what motivates an artist to take such disproportionate and vindictive action against a fan? It's not money—Mr. Maisel is one of the most successful commercial photographers in the world. In Baio's account, he quotes Maisel's lawyer:
"He is a purist when it comes to his photography," his lawyer wrote. "With this in mind, I am certain you can understand that he felt violated to find his image of Miles Davis, one of his most well-known and highly-regarded images, had been pixellated, without his permission […]"
With all due respect, I'm certain I can't understand how Maisel's hurt feelings are worth $32K. What's being referenced here is the noxious concept of Moral Rights, the idea that an artist's right to preserve the integrity of a piece of work can and should prevent anyone else from editing them in any way—including, apparently, using the original work as a springboard for something new. The American system of copyright does not, in fact, recognize Moral Rights (it's mostly concerned with people getting paid), but the romantic ideal that somehow the artist's intent should trump future artists' intent forever and ever is anti-Art. Everything is derivative. That's the way culture happens. 

I make a part of my living as a designer and illustrator. I have used existing works of art as inspiration, as reference material, as grist for the mill. Maybe some other artists have taken bits and pieces from what I've done and made something new. I don't know of transformative works, but I have found places where my art was used unaltered without attribution or payment. If someone were to use one of my illustrations commercially, I would ask for payment; if they were to use it in a way I found offensive, I would ask them to stop.

But really? Most of the time, it just makes me smile—because I know my work is floating out there along with all the other smells.

22 June 2011

Fight for your right

I'm not really the type to have role models; people are too complicated, too full of good and bad to be credible heroes to me. But if pressed for an example of someone who showed great courage in speaking truth to power I would have to go with William Gaines.

Gaines is best known today as the longtime publisher of MAD Magazine, and while financing a rag whose purpose was to pervert middle-American values and raise several generations of smart-ass punks would be enough to commend him, I think his finest moment came in 1954, when he was the publisher of the EC Comics line of horror comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, etc. Red panic was in the air in those days, and a crackpot psychiatrist by the name of Frederick Wertham had just published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that violent comic books were perverting American youth, turning them into either Communists or homosexuals or both. The upshot of all of this was that Gaines was called before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to give an accounting for why his comics were so gory and disgusting and devoid of redeeming qualities and really wasn't he ashamed of himself.

You can read his testimony in its entirety online, but the long story short is he refused to play the game. When asked to justify himself—to explain what possible good could come of comics featuring beheadings and eviscerations played for laughs—he shrugged: "It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid." 

He stood condemned before he spoke a word, of course, and within a year EC Comics was forced to stop publishing its horror line because of the new guidelines set forth by the Comics Code Authority. But I've always loved the image of this bespectacled, schlubby man effectively thumbing his nose at the idea that entertainment had to serve some noble purpose. Here was a guy who refused to justify something that had, and needed, no justification. There are many people who pay lip service to the idea of free speech when that speech is in service of a cause. It takes courage to defend free speech in the service of nothing other than simple self-gratification.

I often think of Gaines whenever someone ties themselves in rhetorical knots trying to answer scolds and censors who aren't happy with the kind of fun others are having. Video games promote hand-eye coordination; I'm not wasting time on the Internet, I'm building my social network; I'm only reading it for the articles. Look at the convoluted points activists make when trying to legalize marijuana: they talk about pot's medicinal uses, the ways the fibers can be used to make rope and the ways seeds can be used to make oil and the ways the roots can be used to make kitchenette sets. What they don't say is: "I want to get high, and I think it's fair that I be free to do that in a safe and legal way." 

There are some things we do for shits and giggles. Most of the best things: roller coasters, horror movies, bourbon, sex. You have your own list, and it's probably different, but you don't have to justify it to me.

21 June 2011

I get knocked down

Parenthood is a project made of anxiety, delight, but most especially drudgery: and of the tedious bits some of the worst are the endless hours spent playing first board games. The absolute nadir of these is of course Candyland, whose cruel and capricious nature has driven most parents to stack the deck in their child's favor (or in their own favor, who cares, so long as the damn game ends already for God's sake).  But a close second is the game Chutes and Ladders.

Chutes and Ladders is the kinder, gentler cousin of Snakes and Ladders; of the two, the latter name more accurately describes the feeling of playing the game, which not unlike a case of the DT's. In the event you never were a child, here's a description: the game consists of a race to the final square interrupted by a string of random reversals of fate in which your piece ascends ladders or descends chutes. These titular features are arranged in such a way that victory is eternally snatched from young innocent hands and the average game length is six hours (including two nap times).

The picture above is the version of the game I played with my daughter Kate when she was three; the board, apparently from the 1970's, includes scenes that attempt to provide karmic justification for the players' rises and falls. In one square, a girl mixes batter and so is rewarded by a ladder leading to a cake; in another, a boy reaches for cookies on a high shelf and falls down a chute that ends with a concussion and a possible lifetime of epilepsy. In one confusing pair, a child either hands his mother her purse or absconds with it and is rewarded via a ladder with ice cream; in yet another, a boy skates on thin ice, only to chute to what we must presume is an icy death.

I don't think that Kate was impressed by the lessons of these scenes, but being a rational child she liked the depictions of cause and effect. She was especially pleased by a sequence where a pulling a cat's tail results in a scratched face for the abuser. Kate herself has to this day a scar from the family cat that she received in exactly the same way; perhaps she found some sort of atonement via proxy. But for me there was no comfort in these tiny morality plays, because in spite of the veneer of a just universe the game is still entirely one of chance. In fact, the rewards and punishments only made the underlying randomness of it all that more depressing. What did it matter if sweeping the floor earned the little girl a trip to the movie when her stab at the housework was just one of six random options in the first place?

Fortunately, the days of playing this game are long behind me; I think we got rid of our copy at a garage sale, or maybe it's squashed flat beneath the weight of better games on our basement shelves. But at night sometimes the game still haunts me. I wake from a dream of sudden falling and I wonder whether my life is really a series of actions and consequences or just one die roll after another.