On Friday, Shia Labeouf claimed he was leaving us.
In light of the recent attacks against my artistic integrity, I am retiring from all public life.
— Shia LaBeouf (@thecampaignbook) January 10, 2014
Since Justin Bieber claimed he was retiring, then retracted the claim in the course of the same interview, I have stopped living in hope. No one will ever retire. They will all haunt us forever, dogging our footsteps our entire lives, like deleted tweets.
In case you haven’t been following the Curious Case of Shia LaBeouf, because good for you, you have made correct choices in your life and are to be commended and need read no further now that you’ve clicked on the headline and I really appreciate your patronage maybe also hover your mouse over an ad before you leave?
Where was I?
Oh yes. In case you haven’t been following the Curious Case of Shia LaBeouf, he’s come under fire for making a film out of a Daniel Clowes comic without notifying or giving any credit to its author. And it turns out that the line of comics he produced also weren’t actually his original words and ideas — rather, they were recombinations of the words of others, with names changed here and there and erratic punctuation inserted.
Along the way from there to his retirement, he also sky-wrote an apology to Clowes (in LA, not the city where Clowes actually resides), reappropriated other people’s apologies and tweeted them and generally ran amok. And at one point, LaBeouf, or at least an e-mail address that he’d used in the past to promote his comics, defended his efforts to the comics news site BleedingCool as an act of creation. “It’s the 21st century, thug life
It wants to be fee. [sp]” “Authorship is censorship
Should God sue me if I paint a river?”
At this point it would be easy to sneer that, “LaBeouf, artistic manifestos are easier to take seriously from people who can spell.”
But if LaBeouf were a better speller and could frame the question, would he be able to make a case?
Yes, one of the most visible ways that people display their creativity these days is by remixing and transforming. Whether it’s the people who create poems by blacking out lines of text, the artists who reimagine Disney characters (and reimagine them, and reimagine them, and reimagine them) or the big-name DJs who create something by churning together a huge barrel of music and sounds to create something that’s never been heard before in just that way, a huge amount of art is remixing. You could probably make the case that all art is fan art, or a remix, to a certain degree. If it’s not a remix of a story that’s happened before, it’s the strange concoction that emerges when you put your everything you’ve ever read and thought and remembered into a blender and try to turn it into a story.
Especially these days. Look at Tumblr. For some people, it’s about making. For the majority of users, it’s about curating what others have made. Post, repost, hashtag, leave a comment, repost the comment.
Curation is definitely a form of creativity. And part of the nature of Tumblr and many of these reblogging platforms that have led to so much exciting remixing is that you can follow all the reblogs and retweets and links all the way back to the original source. You’re giving credit, even as you’re displaying the work in a new context.
Sometimes this falls through in practice, of course. People still pretend they originated jokes they didn’t write. People still post pictures and comics without crediting their creators. Urban Outfitters keeps doing that thing where it takes people’s Etsy ideas and markets them to millions without so much as a thank-you. This still happens. But people can notice and tell the miscreants to stop. You can’t just reach down and steal from people less known than you. Well, you can, but it’s a lot easier to get called out on it. A woman once told Oscar Wilde that a passage in one of his plays reminded her of the work of a French dramatist. “Taken bodily from it,” he said. “Why not? No one reads anymore.”
Well, no one may read, but everyone Googles.
It’s a lot harder to steal and get off scot-free than it used to be before Everything That Is Made became so searchable. “Art is anything you can get away with”? You can’t get away with this any longer. Shia found that out.
Look, there’s a simple enough rule of thumb that can let you know if what you’re doing is art or theft.
Plagiarism is when you hope they won’t notice.
If someone sneaks into a house late at night, takes the jewels, and runs away without notifying the homeowner, that’s just theft.
If someone sneaks into a house late at night, removes the bed, and puts an elephant in its place — well, there’s a case to be made that it’s art. But the householder will still probably press charges. Look what happened to Shepard Fairey.
With creative remixes, you are taking something that you have reason to think people will notice is gone. And the result is something different and new in more senses than simply that your name is on it in the place of the original author’s.
It’s punching up. It’s stealing up. You take some characters from the Bible? Words from Shakespeare? Go for it. But if you take something from a source you hope is sufficiently obscure, and you don’t attribute, that’s theft. If you take something that has no author, that is just sitting there on the Internet, and slap your name on it, that’s theft. If you pass off Wikipedia as an original speech, that’s theft.
This should go without saying.
“Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” But mature artists steal maturely. T. S. Eliot, who liked to shovel rich, steaming heaps of other writers’ quotations into his work as a kind of manure, didn’t do it because he was hoping not to get caught. He did it because he knew people would notice and that it would enrich their understanding of the work. Not because he couldn’t come up with words of his own.
Copying and pasting can be creative. But not if the only thing you’re cutting is the author’s name. It’s a simple enough rule. It works in most cases. And until LaBeouf figures it out, he can stay retired.