A Continuing Cultural Conversation

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Tom likens Art to a cultural conversation, or rather someone has slipped that metaphor in along in the discussion. And that seems quite reasonable. Tom goes on to ask the question, "Is it reasonable in the course of any conversation to assume that every person engaged has the right not only to be heard, but in a sense to dominate the conversation as the only one whose word not only must be heard, but must be held sacrosanct and inviolable?" I paraphrase, but I hope I caught the essence of it.

Because Tom's definition of Art starts off much broader than my own, that question is reasonable as well. But where the difficulty comes in is that the cultural conversation takes not merely minutes, hours, days, months, years, or decades; it can, and often does take centuries and millennia.

While it is unreasonable to hold one person's view as more valuable or more sacrosanct than another's, when I argue for the preservation of the original, I am not saying that there cannot be other contributors, but rather, because the conversation takes so long, it is only right to hear the conversants in their own voices--as unmediated by another as is possible.

I make an inference here that Tom may be describing art as a kind of dialectic a kind of theme, introduced by the initial artist and modified through the years by responding artists in harmony or dissonance. And that may be a reasonable view of the process over all.

It is not the production of new works that bothers me. But let me try to explain just why I hold the view I do. St. Thomas Aquinas produced a large compendium of theology and philosphy, and I suppose natural science, and many other things related to theology and understanding God. This is the remarkable Summa Theologiae. Through time, many, many people have responded to this work, both positively or negatively. However, if I only read Farrell's study of the work, have I really come to terms with what St. Thomas Aquinas said? If I read only the two abridgments prepared by Peter Kreeft, do I have a clear idea of what Aquinas taught. Perhaps, perhaps not. But if I don't have the work of Aquinas to refer to, how can I know. If we allow the original to be so truncated to to be compiled in Kreeft's Summa of the Summa how will I understand the conversation?

Now the creation of the Summa of the Summa MIGHT be what Tom would refer to as a modification of the Summa Theologiae, if so, we have a different terminology for recognizing the validity of the same thing, because I would argue that Kreeft used his skills as writer and editor to produce from Aquinas not just a modification of Aquinas, but what is, in essence, an entirely new work. Yes, the bulk of it is Aquinas (there are notes and comments by Kreeft) but the process of editing picks highlights and reshapes the corpus of the work in such a way that it no longer fully represents the original. With this type of continuing conversation, I have no problem. Part of my ease comes from the fact that if I wished to know what Aquinas really said, I need only pick up one of several critical editions and learn Latin and read it. (Well, perhaps only wasn't a particularly good modifier in that sentence.) But the reality is that I have the original contribution to the conversation to play off of all the others and to hear the overtones and undertones.

But let's assume for a moment that an evil band of Kreeftian adherents stole all extant copies of the Summa and destroyed them. Then those initial remarks--the conversation starter is completely lost to me--and the conversation starter is indeed the seed of all that followed.

This is where we may part company, because I sincerely believe that it is good to know the full nature of that seed and even of the subsequent branches when we begin to engage in the conversation.

Now I've been queried about whether I would confer the same protections on Cheaper by the Dozen as I would on the Hagia Sophia. And the answer is an unqualified yes, with a codicil. I think it good to preserve as intact as possible all of the works of art so that future art has it as the "conversation starter." Ideally, that Art should be the authentic expression of the artist who produced it--complete and unchanged--but ready now to be modified by the future artist who encounters it. The codicil is, do I think Cheaper by the Dozen is as important as the Hagia Sophia. No! Rather I confer on Cheaper by the Dozen the protection I would like to offer the Hagia Sophia, not because CBD is necessarily worthy of that protection, but because if I have to choose between releasing all and keeping all, I choose keeping all. CBD is the side beneficiary of the protection I would like to see conferred on all great works of art.

A great work of art is a conversation starter--it is interesting to see the conversation develop, but I often lament things like Fragments from Paphias that give us enticing snippets of what could have been a most interesting whole. I regret the loss of many of the Pindaric Odes, though they may not have been worthy of a second thought. Who would have thought a minor comedy of an ancient Roman would have been worth recreating as a musical. And yet, it works.

So, if I am a protectionist, it is both for the good of Art as a whole, and I believe, the good of humanity. Some conversations are finished, have long since been but to rest and now are nothing more than footnotes in long abstruse studies of ancient Hungarian fragments or lesser Scholastics of the 14th century. There is a natural lull in the conversation. But the texts are there, ready for a resurgent interest that may uncover in these "lesser" scholastics insights that were far ahead of their time. If these works are redacted into nonexistence, this fertile field is destroyed, and part of the ability of Art is destroyed with it. I think of art as akin to John Donne's paean to everyman, "No man is an island, but all be part of the whole. If a clod be washes from Europe, Europe is the less." The loss of an original artwork is a great shame and a great loss. The centuries-long conversation that occurs around this artwork enriches Art, and if done properly, all of humanity.

That is why I suppose I impose my two categorical statements--(1)The willful misattribution of a work of art that has been changed to the original artist is sinful; and (2)The redaction of any original, no matter how seemingly trivial, out of existence is a great loss.

That said, I now need to come to terms with the very real part of me that says, "Some works don't deserve to exist at all. Would the loss of all of the pornography of the 20th century really be a bad thing." And perhaps it is in the distinction between Great Art, Good Art, Mediocre Art, and Bad Art, that I could find some answers to that question. (Bad art here meaning art that is both seriously, grievously mortally flawed, and art that while unflawed morally is so completely flawed technically as to be worthless.)

And perhaps my answer would be that Art in the first three categories deserves to have the original preserved, and that in the last, particularly if morally reprehensible should be consigned to the dust head of history. But then my statement wouldn't be categorical. And perhaps, with further reflection that's just fine.

All I really want is to be able to see what was originally there if I have cause to. As I once commented to TSO, reading a book by John Cornwell was a waste of time because I felt I had to go back and try to find all of the originals to see, what if anything, was true about it. But stop and consider. If we redacted everything out of existence and all that remained to say of Pius XII were the half-truths and less of Cornwell's book, then we would have done a great injustice--and I believe the nature of that injustice is related to Art itself.

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I agree with you that the original should be preserved, if only for historical reasons. But with regard to the Summa, what about all of the "modifications" Ss. Albert and Thomas made to prior works, Aristotle and Plato and the like? Perhaps either "interpretations" or "critical review" would better words, but from my limited knowledge what they did to pagan authors is similar to what Kreeft did to the ST in his Summa of the Summa, except that they did it to make the pagan works acceptable to a Christian audience, in a similar way that Zippy suggests changing Cheaper by the Dozen.

Dear Brandon,

Modification, as I hope I've made clear, is the progress of art.

Zippy's initial statement bothered me because I confused a number of different points, which I don't think he was trying to make. Once sorted out, I really have only one issue with Zippy's point and that is the copyright and "ownership" of intellectual property issue.

Still, under fair use, Zippy would be entitled in his home to do whatever he wanted to do with the film (or so it would seem to me). I have my own hesitation about doing anything like what he suggests, but those are my own foibles, not his problem.

But when you clear away the underbrush I've indicated above, I hope I've made clear that creating new versions of older works is simply how art moves forward. What it does not tend to do is destroy the old to make the new. So long as the two coexist, the conversation continues.

As for modifying extant and copyrighted works--I still believe in copyright and the protections it offers the purveyors of film. I don't believe that what CleanFlicks wanted to do commercially should be allowed as a matter of "fair use." I believe it should be licensed and that any director who wishes to opt-out should be allowed to do so. However, that won't stop legions of Zippys the nation over exercising proper parental guidance and control over the content their children absorb. I exercise it by refusing to allow Samuel to see things that I would consider damaging or objectionable, Zippy does so by removing what he considers damaging or objectionable. Two methods, one end--to preserve childhood and the proper moral space for raising children.

I think after I've sorted out all the factors, that's what it boils down to. I objected to Zippy's assertion (as I understood it) that there existed some right outside of the living artist himself to alter a work. That right does not exist for works under copyright. I also objected to the undertones (again inferred) that it is somehow right to destroy the original of a work if its use does not suit a given person--a point to which I object, but don't seem to get across. I further object to Zippy, or to anyone, presuming to tell me what makes art better or worse. I think the moral end of it can be nebulous (witness the discussion here about Lolita) and the objective artistic merit is quite elusive. Zippy at least pretends and possibly really believes that Picasso has none. I, on the other hand, while not embracing Picasso as a favorite artist by any means, recognize a great deal of objective merit in the spontaneous expansion of cubism into a realm unique to a single artist. There has never been nor will ever be an artist like Picasso, who took dry theory, turned it on its head and gave us Les Saltimbanques and Guernica--both masterworks of style and genius, even if not the equivalet of Mad Goya's Saturn Eating His Children.

Hope that explains my route and my objections.

See, conversation can change minds.




In my limited reading about St. Albert, and the early Dominican order, something sticks out that might or might not be relevant to the discussion (albeit an earlier part of the discussion). At the time (mid 1200's), Aristotle and Plato were not allowed to be studied in seminaries, because of their pagan influences. In effect, the Christians were living in a cultural ghetto, to use one of Zippy's earlier phrases. Ss. Albert and Thomas took those works and "cleaned them up", although what they did qualifies -- by any definition, but certainly by yours here -- as making a derivative work that clarified and eliminated the pagan influences. This made the works "acceptable" to the Christian audience.

Now this is different in at least one way to Zippy's proposed modification to Cheaper by the Dozen. (Disclaimer: I have never seen the movie, so all my information regarding it comes from this conversation). In today's society, we believe that the role of government/the Church is not to "protect" the faithful from evil influences, but to "educate" them against them. So, it would be unacceptable to a modern sentiment for the Univ. or Paris to declare that certain works will not be studied. Or for the Church to declare that the faithful should not read certain books. In fact, each year, the Public Library systems celebrate "banned book week", encouraging people to read the books that have been banned at some point or another, thumbing their nose at the concept that one person or group of people might be able to determine what another person or gp of people are allowed to read. Now, I'm all for this (my mother is a public school librarian, and she has the t-shirts listing the banned books), but the danger with this system (and in my opinion we're getting close to this point) is when it eeks over into every aspect of living; i.e. when parents abjdicate their role as filters and censors to what their children see and do.

Back to the 1260's. The "cleaning" that St. Albert did was to, in effect, return the works back into the Cultural Conversation. Certainly someone somewhere had preserved the originals (various non-European Jewish and Egyptian scholars, as I recall) which was essential to the continuing cultural conversation. However, my point is that the works were tainted with "untruth"; pagan concepts about God and Nature that were incorrect. St. Albert took out those elements, made commentary and explaination where appropriate, or re-worked the correct elements into an appropriate Christian framework. In many ways, this might be similar to removing a vasectomy reference/joke (presenting an objective evil as good is inappropriate and objectively wrong) in order to make the movie less offensive. (Yes, I know that vasectomies are wrong. But because I'm in the child-bearing phase of my life right now, I get pretty offended when things like that come up. It's currently my creative outlet, if you will, it hits really close to home, and it upsets me, even if I do know right from wrong. I also don't go listening to speaches by the KKK, not because I don't know that racism is wrong, but because they offend and upset me). Yes, I could avoid the movie completely, and if the rest of the movie was permeated with allusions to how difficult and tedious it were to have 11 kids, then I probably would. But if the rest of the movie is about the delight of a large family, with that being the only offensive bit, then I would probably prefer to watch it with that part removed.

Again, I find my ramblings not necessarily following the thread of this particular conversation, but perhaps you can glean something of use from them.


Don't have much to add as this is above my paygrade and both sides have good points. Here's my proposal to Summa of the Summa of the Summa of the Summa: "Love God". As helpful as that is, I'm glad we have the original Summa.

...if I have to choose between releasing all and keeping all, I choose keeping all.

Come celebrate with me, then, that you don't have to choose between releasing all and keeping all.

The loss of an original artwork is a great shame and a great loss.

Once again, as a sentiment this is fine; as a principle, madness. I've made plenty of original artworks that have been lost without loss -- though that string art bull I made in fourth grade was something of a sentimental favorite. As I've written elsewhere, every hour of every day junk is being made, and it's the making of it that's the shame.

Dear Tom,

It's only madness if I accept the more general definition of Art that you suggest. I do not. String art bulls, forks, and plates, are all crafts, and I do think there is a legitimate distinction to be made between the two--although perhaps not a clear black and white distinction.

So I stand by my principle. To make it more palatable for you, perhaps you might substitute a great work of Art, or a work of ARt of great genius. And even then, while I say it is a great loss, it does happen--most of the library at Alexandria, The Colossus, the Bamiyam Buddhas, among the things we are aware of.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 26, 2006 7:40 PM.

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