On the value of not putting things into words

It’s uncomfortable for a writer to admit, but sometimes words fail us. They seem to have done so both before and since the 2014 European Parliamentary elections – or perhaps it’s we who have failed our words. Words, like hands, can be used to construct, to caress and to strike. Whatever the truth of it, the debate about our societies and our selves that has accompanied this democratic moment has been lamentable.

So it was a relief to come across these cartoons, commissioned and selected by the European Cultural Foundation and the Cartoon Movement as a contribution to the reflection that makes democracy valid. Eloquent in themselves, they also underline art’s value as a way of knowing and its capacity to express what cannot – or sometimes might just better not – be put into words.


Copyright vs. the Honesty Box

‘Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families.’

The Statute of Anne (1710)

Sherlock Holmes (Moore & Reppion)The digital reformation

The effect of new digital and communication technologies on human society is truly revolutionary. Computers, smartphones and the Internet are now so commonplace that it can be hard to recognise the importance of the changes they are enabling. In the early 1980s, I worked in community printshops, which had the avowed aim of giving people better access to the means of cultural production. That dream has been achieved to an extent and in ways we couldn’t imagine in the days of hand-cut stencils and electric typewriters.

The consequences of these changes are unpredictable, but they will be at least as profound as the introduction of printing in 15th century Europe (whose effects we are still living through). But it is already clear that a cornerstone of the cultural economics is being undermined. Copyright, which has developed alongside capitalism in the past 300 years, is unsustainable in its current form.

The concept was itself a result of the printing revolution as artists fought to protect their interests against those of printers. The problem was recognised in the Statute of Anne (1710), which first established the rights of authors to benefit from their work, a concept that has grown into the complex body of intellectual property rights which both enabled and governed the subsequent development of prosperous cultural industries.

Copyright and musicians

led Zeppelin Chicago 1975An early sign of the pressure copyright would come under were the stickers record companies began putting on LPs in the early 1980s, threatening that ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’.  Thirty years on, after the legal struggles over Napster, Megaupload and Pirate Bay and a complete reinvention of music distribution through Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, that early BPI campaign seems almost homely.

Whatever the morality of file sharing, it can at least be argued that musicians currently benefit more than suffer from the easy distribution of their work. The control of the big record companies has gone. Small independent labels thrive, while many artists self-publish music online. The economics of popular music have been reversed. In the 1970s, bands often lost money touring to promote album sales. Today, they give away music but capitalise on live performance – the ancient experience of hearing musicians play that cannot be pirated. Ticket prices for live music are at an all time high.

Visual artists and writers

But things are more difficult for visual artists and writers. Their work, so slow and painstaking in production, can be copied and distributed in an email attachment. E-books and digital publishing may eventually provide a financially viable outlet, though the success in this field of people like E L James obscures the much greater likelihood of publishing online never to be read, still less paid for. Without the possibility of playing live and touring, writers will always find it hard to build an audience.

A page on the website of comic book creators Leah Moore and John Reppion brings home the difficulty of making a living as a writer or visual artist in the ‘post-copyright’ age. Moore and Reppion are young artists who have been working together since 2003 and have an impressive catalogue of comics, illustration and other writing. In The Honesty Box they speak directly to readers who may have downloaded their work online without paying for it.

Leah Moore & John Reppion (DC Sterne)They describe exactly why this is ‘to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families’, saying openly that in the last tax year they earned £5,000 less than they’d have got by doing the same number of hours on the minimum wage.  They go on to explain that, as freelancers, future contracts often depend on sales figures of past publications, and how comic publishers need sales to invest in future productions. They give links to legitimate places where their work can be bought online, in book or digital form. And they conclude by inviting people who have read and liked their work to leave something in their PayPal Honesty Box.

The page is an eloquent and dignified statement by artists who, like most of those who comprise the core of the much-vaunted ‘creative industries’, are not rich or famous or powerful. They have no place in the legal wars between media corporations and Internet libertarians, neither of whom has much interest in their wellbeing though both exploit their creativity. Whatever economic structure eventually emerges from the current instability of copyright, what matters most to our culture and our democracy is whether it ensures that people like Leah Moore and John Reppion can sustain their creative practice and themselves.

PS – I did get permission to reproduce the work on this page!

‘Billy, Me & You’

Last autumn Nicola Streeten published her first comic book. Billy, Me & You is about a couple coming to terms with the loss of a small child. It is a personal account, some 15 years after the event, of an unanticipated death and a long journey of recovery. Streeten draws on – in every sense – memories, diaries and photographs to turn her experience into art.

Understandably, it was this human story that the media – including Channel 4 and the Guardian – focused on, reporting it in lifestyle rather than arts or literary slots.

To some extent, this is as it should be. Art works first because of what it is about and only subsequently, if at all, because of its formal realities. Professionals care most about the latter, since that is their work, and don’t always see that readers, viewers and listeners take them for granted, simply as ways of delivering content.

But formal questions do arise when the form used has low status in the art world – as is the case of comics in Britain. So Channel 4’s angle on Billy, Me & You was to see it as an example of comics ‘growing up’ and dealing with real life rather than fantasies of superheroes. (Most of art history would be disqualified by a ban on fantasies and superheroes.) Continue reading “‘Billy, Me & You’”