Friday, September 23, 2005

Art Under Capitalism Is Weird; Lawyering Up with Kanye West


Marx, Marx, Marx. So many dudes rolled in one! Even if you are not a fan (as I am: go Marx! De-fense!), I think you can agree that he took the temperature of capitalism purty accurately, and did more to discern the origins of the new economic regime than anybody else before him. And anybody who did a decent job of writing economic history after Marx (Weber, Braudel, blah blah blah, etc.) either followed him or had to engage in dialogue with him. There is a whole school of neoliberal American economic historians whose decision to ignore the questions posed by Marx makes their work read like science fiction (Rostow, Chandler, Galbraith, et al). These are the folks who made the insanities of George Gilder and the Friedmans, Milton and Thomas possible. So, to sum up: whatever we think of socialism, if we want to know how this whole capitalism thing got started, we probably have to read some Marx.

One thing that KM emphasized was that capitalism is a system of property relations, not of "money" and "exchange." Who owns what and why, and how a legal order is set up to protect property rights is the real nub of what Yanquis quaintly call "free enterprise." We can see this really clearly in the case of art. Intellectual property rights have developed in a slow and haphazard way. When capitalists in America were busy producing shoes and cotton and other material goods, they didn't need to concern themselves too much with words and images and sounds. These were still the province of the "folk" (and as such held in common and unownable) or the decadent aesthetes of the old aristocracy (and as such still tied up in one-of-a-kind masterpieces {how are you gonna mass-produce those?} and un-economic institutions like theatres and orchestras). No doubt the capitalists of the 19th century would have been surprised to learn that so much cash could be made in the early oughts from sounds inscribed in little plastic discs and stories projected on screens in darkened rooms.

The best way to evaluate the impact of modern-day capitalism on the production of art is to look at the kind of limits the economic system places on people who make it. For example: FF and I were watching Kanye West's "Diary" on MTV the other day, which documented the making of KW's new album, "Late Registration." Now, I am not a big fan of Kanye, but I like that he is sort of against the diamond trade and dissed George Bush on TV. Kanye was talking about making his record with producer Jon Brion, and while the TV showed a montage of Kanye and Brion jamming and listening back to tracks and singing (in short, what we all imagine the usual process of making music creatively to be) Kanye was pointing out how radical an approach this was: "we didn't even call the lawyers! We figured we'd let the label sort it out later." Take that, management!

Can you imagine having to call a lawyer before you played a note or sang a lyric? (Or wrote a poem or drew a line?) What a dreadful perversion of the creative process by the spirit of capitalism. Even Kanye's "radical" gesture of making a record without having barristers and soliciters on the speed-dial still demonstrates the power of the new climate of intellectual property rights-- even in full-maverick screw-the-system mode, Kanye's still has lawyers on the brain. Which is the last place you want a lawyer. Unless you are Dick Wolf. Or John Grisham. Or Corbin Bernsen. Then... ch-ching!

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Maybe it's just me, but I'm pretty sure Kanye didn't say, "We didn't call the lawyer." What I think he ACTUALLY said was, "What happens in Cabo, stays in Cabo."