At the end of the 19th century a visionary culture arbiter paved the way for abstraction.
At the end of the 20th century a visionary culture arbiter paved the way for free culture.
Abstraction and Free Culture are, for me, the two great trajectories in the art of culture. We spent forever working on representation. And realism. And then one day Claude Monet said that maybe less, was more. Or as Nam June Paik put it in 1970:
We are moving in TV away from high fidelity pictures to low fidelity. From Giotto to Rembrandt the aim was fidelity to nature. Monet changed all that.
Similarly we have spent centuries trying to lock down culture. Extending the term of copyright. Criminalizing what young people do on The Internet. Jack Valenti wanted copyright to last “forever less one day.” Sonny Bono wanted it to last for eternity.
Then one day Lawrence Lessig said that maybe less was more. That the freedom to share creativity and ideas might generate more culture and a richer society.
JMW Turner, 1775 – 1851
Claude Monet, 1840 – 1926
Richard Stallman, 1953
Lawrence Lessig, 1961
If Lessig is Monet, then Stallman is Turner
It’s happened twice in my lifetime.
I loved studying Claude Monet’s work. Writing papers about him. If you asked me to do something as silly as divide all of art history into just two clumps, it’d only take me one second to do it. Art before Monet. Art after Monet. His 1872 masterpiece Impression Sunrise gave the name to the Impressionist movement. Well, we call it a “masterpiece” today. Back then people said it wasn’t even a “real” painting, just an “impression” of a painting.
In photographs Claude Monet looks like Santa Claus or your grandpa. He never wore a revolutionary uniform or a punk hairdoo. Never pressed his clenched fist into the air. Yet I can’t think of a radical revolutionary more absolute than Claude Monet. He changed everything. For me Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko and so many others all discover their oeuvre’s in the wake of Claude Monet.
But if Monet is an ahead of his time genius, what is Turner? When I look at a painting like Turner’s 1842 Snowstorm, I don’t even know how to describe what Turner was doing 30 years before Monet was ahead of his time! Was Turner an alien!? Sent by some distant intelligence to bring abstraction to the people of the earth?
And then in 2007 I read Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 book Free Culture: the nature and future of creativity.
Suddenly dance and painting and other forms seemed less interesting to me. I was already moving toward online, networked expression, and it was clear that the old “Copyright All Rights Reserved” wasn’t the space I wanted to be in anymore.
In the 6 years since my awakening almost everything about my art practice has changed. Like so many I’ve become an enormous Lawrence Lessig fangirl, overwhelmed at his continuing insights into culture and creativity in our time. The titles of his books define the issues of our age.
But if Lawrence Lessig is an “ahead of his time genius” writing Free Culture in 2004, then how do you even describe what Richard Stallman was doing 30 years earlier, writing The GNU Manifesto in 1985!? Is Stallman an alien!? Sent by some distant intelligence to bring Free Software to the people of the earth?
I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the genius of Claude Monet or Lawrence Lessig. As for explaining the vision of Turner, or Stallman, 3 decades earlier, I am speechless. What I do know is that inspired and humbled as I am by the vision of Monet and Turner, I can only ever admire and consider what they did in the past. To be living at the same time that both Lessig and Stallman are working in brilliant form is extraordinary.
When I think about Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot and so many others, I worry what a sad moment this is.
But to stand on this earth as Lawrence Lessig and Richard Stallman and so many other brilliant people are doing so much courageous, insightful work is amazing. What a time to be alive!