Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
October 12, 2010
I have no doubt that “The Social Network” will become a classic, the defining film of an era. Somehow the producers managed to make a gripping story about something inherently static—people sitting behind computers—that’s brilliantly executed and acted. However I still don’t understand how it’s legal to fictionalize the experiences of living persons—put words into their mouths as it were, without their permission. Bad enough that we have to live with our own histories, without having also to contend with the fallout from those created by others (nevertheless, I’ve decided to give Hollywood full rights to my life story, as long as I am played by Penelope Cruz).
It amused me that “The Social Network” ended with a Beatles song, “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” because throughout (having just read the Beatles’ biography described in the post below) I was thinking about the similarities between the Facebook story and the Beatles’ trajectory—guys in their early 20s, misfits in their own way, who engendered social/cultural phenomena on a scale so new and massive it would have been impossible to predict, creating situations (and legal problems) no one had dealt with before. Both had forward-thinking mentors (Facebook’s Sean Parker, formerly of Napster, was the Beatles’ Brian Epstein and George Martin rolled into one), and both found it necessary to fire a founding member of the team who was also a good friend because he couldn’t keep up with the vision—and both did it in a nasty, cowardly manner. In the film, Parker delivers the final blow to Eduardo Saverin, whose business school mentality was a drag on the program. Like Saverin, the Beatles’ Pete Best (who was also the band heartthrob) was there from the beginning, chosen originally because he owned a drum kit—a big consideration in those lean days—and could keep a beat. Further Best’s mum was the band’s den mother who, in the club she established in the basement of her Liverpool home, gave them some of their earliest performance opportunities. Yet when the Beatles decided Best’s leaden style was holding them back (wanting to replace him with Ringo, the best drummer on the scene) they left it to Brian Epstein do the deed.
There’s also another issue here—that of stolen ideas. I’m not saying Mark Zuckerberg shouldn’t have compensated the others, but he’s right when he says, effectively, that they would not have made Facebook what it was. There is the idea, and the doing something with the idea, two different things entirely. I participated in a symposium at the Guggenheim on the occasion of The Gates, when an artist stood up and complained, bitterly, that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had stolen her idea. She didn’t get much support from the audience, who recognized that orange flags were only part of the project (and I remember thinking that someone who was so embroiled in wrongs from the past, would never have the open spirit needed to negotiate its ultimate realization). I have had ideas stolen—or let’s say “adapted”—several times. It isn’t pleasant, but it goes with the creative territory. Once a visiting artist where I was teaching (who had even complained in his lecture about his dearth of ideas) blatantly “adapted” a graduate students's concept. As he walked out the door after the critique, her studio mate predicted, “You’re going to see these in Chelsea in a year and a half,” and it happened, right on schedule. While I was furious, my student not so flapped, and in the end I said to her, “Don’t worry, while you’re going to have many more new ideas, he’s not.”
And he hasn’t.
By the same token, when someone accuses a Christo (or George Harrison or Coldplay) of “artistic theft” it seems especially silly, because these are people who clearly have come up with so many ideas, it seems unlikely that they’d intentionally stoop to stealing. But it could happen--here’s an example of a similarity that cropped up between artists who are, for all intents and purposes, equals. You can be the judge.
And, as I mentioned in a previous post, two artists can, without any contact at all, come up with almost exactly the same thing—the example I gave was the paintings I did without ever having seen those by Alighiero e Boetti.
Oh well, it all makes for a good story.