Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Art of Argument

David Fleming has asserted that visual images can't serve as arguments because a picture in itself "makes no claim that can be contested, doubted, or improved upon by others." The software program Photoshop, which makes the alteration of images by would-be critics easier for nonspecialists to undertake, would seem to contradict the basis of this claim. With Photoshop, the ideological messages of images can be refined and debated. Perhaps Walter Benjamin's famed essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" should be updated, now that the capacity of our "culture industry" to churn out copies is being subverted by digital tinkerers.

For example, in the original version of the photograph above, the loyalty of a Palestinian crowd to an iconic political leader is celebrated by the image of a man holding Arafat's picture over his head. However, in the Photoshopped mutation of this image, which appeared in the conservative blog Little Green Footballs, the man's sentiments have been reduced to celebrity worship because the portrait of Arafat has become a portrait of Elvis.

Unfortunately, this form of visual debate may be smothered in its infancy by expanding federal intellectual property regulations, particularly the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Ostensibly, parodies like the image above remain protected speech. Yet Creative Commons advocate Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net has pointed out that the legal sanction for parody is its own kind of trap. Vaidhyanathan warns that the 1994 Supreme Court ruling in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music that the tune from "Pretty Woman" could parodically appear in a rap album by 2 Live Crew was in fact no cause for celebration. Since then, other rappers have lost court cases that involved remixing, despite the fact that they had created more artistically ambitious and politically nuanced projects than 2 Live Crew. Because they couldn't easily fit in the "parody" pigeonhole, the music was ruled illegal.

In other words, suppose I wanted to post a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., and I couldn't get permission from Intellectual Properties Management, because there was no income stream from, say, an advertisement on this blog. I couldn't do it, no matter how useful my critical commentary on the visual rhetoric of King's appearance in black and white photos or how important some historical revelation about this document of a public figure might be. Even if I am using the photo to show the presence of a previously unknown assassin or an FBI agent illegally surveiling King in life! Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, my university might be protected from most legal claims, but if I post the photo without permission I could still be personally held liable and lose my house, car, and savings account.

Now, suppose I digitally altered the image for parodic purposes, it seems I would more likely be in the clear. I could put Dr. King in an Elvis suit like Little Green Footballs. If I wanted to edge my purpose toward social commentary, I could even make a Causasian version of Dr. King, as designer Tibor Kalman did in Colors with other famous African Americans like Spike Lee,

Still, what if I wanted to use the use the image for purposes other than simple caracature or an easy political point? Would I be willing to take the risk to engage in the visual argument? Or would I decide the risk wasn't worth it?

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Blogger Lupton said...

NPR did a piece on how anti-photoshopping rules in Canada are affecting comedians, who increasingly (in the hybrid news-parody format) are using altered political footage to make their satiric points. They are falling back on the old art of impersonation (not a bad thing in itself), but surely we will all suffer if altered media become truly off limits.

6:11 AM  

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