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A Dirty Mind

Curating our shared ideas.



The more reactionary among us might call Lewis Hyde a “concept communist” for his belief that all ideas should be shared, and for his opposition to the progressive ownership of everything from children's songs to the human genome. But that would be limiting and wrong, and besides, I already have a copyright on that term, so hands off.

Hyde has been studying this trend in building boundaries around ideas since his influential book “The Gift” was published in 1983. That book defends the importance of creativity in a more market-driven world, and has become a touchstone for such wide-ranging writers as Margaret Atwood and David Foster Wallace.

Hyde's second book, “Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art,” argues that disorder and disruption are essential to a developing culture. Splitting his time between Kenyon College in Ohio and Harvard University, he's working on his next book, a look at cultural commons, our shared store of ideas down through history.

You hate to call him a guru, because the term has those wonky new-age interpretations. But Hyde is very, very smart. And wiser than someone who wears silk and sits on tasseled pillows all day. He has one of those minds, reaching across the great dinner table of culture and loading up his plate with so many different tastes and flavors that it shouldn't work, but of course the presentation is terrific.

When I heard he was coming to Richmond for Virginia Commonwealth University's Windmueller Lecture, I thought he'd be the perfect person to talk with about the point of this Arts Issue — the role of art in our everyday lives, and the potential for shared ideas, delivered through everything from T-shirts and tattoos to graffiti and Pabst Blue Ribbon-decorated cars.

I started out with the big issues, right up front: commercialization of culture, the role of art in our daily lives and who that art belongs to. And because it was only 9:30 in the morning, he laughed and began somewhere else entirely. But the man knows a good journey, so he takes us out for a while before coming back around.

Lewis Hyde: So one artist that I've been interested in is John Cage, a composer who died five or ten years ago. One of John Cage's assumptions was that art -- the art that Cage made -- was intended to return you to your own perceptions of the world rather than lead you into someone else's fantasy or image. So Cage famously made a piece that had no music in it, a piece of silence, that was four minutes and thirty-three seconds long, and for Cage the point of that piece was to give you a structured environment in which you listened to ambient noise; you listened to the rain on the roof, the wind in the trees, the sound of traffic. So that's an interesting question about where art exists in our environment. So part of your project is to look at homemade art, tattoos or decorated cars, but beyond that there is an aesthetic experience of the world, which is available to anybody if they are put into the right situations to begin to notice.

Style: What are those situations?
For Cage it's creating situations of nonintention, in which you're not so preoccupied by what you're supposed to do in life, where you're headed (like going to the grocery store), what you like and dislike about your environment. They are situations in which you're awake to the world. So in a sense, behind Cage's practice lies a Buddhist understanding that you could intentionally create spaces in which you are less concerned with your own mental processes.

What do you see as the role of the government or city or state for creating that environment?
Well, I mean one of the concerns that I'm writing about is the degree to which we give corporations and artists perpetual control about the work that gets made, so this is a question really about copyright ownership. So what's happened in the last 15 years is that the government has extended copyright so that essentially it's now a perpetual right. Anybody who makes anything. Your notes on your computer are copyrighted to you immediately after you write them and you and your family will own them 70 years after you die.

So the simple thing to say to begin with is basically the government could stop doing that. People at the founding of this nation thought of copyright as a very short-term monopoly privilege which you gave to artists and writers so they had some incentive to make their work, but they thought it should be very short-term because it should really go into the public domain.

As long as we're talking about Virginia, there's a famous letter from Thomas Jefferson in which he talks about the ownership of ideas, and he basically says ideas by nature cannot be owned because he thinks of ownership as something where if I have it then you can't have it. Whereas the whole point of an idea is that if I tell you my idea then we both have the idea. So ideas by nature can travel freely through the world without having to be owned. I could just quote you a sentence from this letter of Jefferson's. He wrote, “He who receives an idea from me receives instructions himself without lessening mine, as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.” A taper is a candle, so in other words you light my candle from your candle -- now we have two lights instead of one.

So going back to government's role: They can increase our ability to own ideas and exclude people from them, or governments can be cautious about that and in their caution help create the public domain in which things exist that nobody owns.

People love their Jefferson here.
That's why I pulled it out for you.

You talk about this idea that creativity is communal, that people and their ideas are shaped by all the people and things around them, and that therefore no single idea actually comes from one person. You cite this quote from the German writer Goethe: “What am I then ...? Everything that I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited.”
[Goethe] talks about himself as a collective being -- that is, his understanding of his own practice is that it was informed by the world around him. That is, nobody makes anything without using the inheritance that everybody who came before has left. We inherit our language; we inherit ideas, narrative patterns, ways of using paint. Once you understand that, it goes to the question of, “What does it mean to own something that you make?” Nothing you make can possibly be yours alone because it always contains material you take from other people, and in a way your project again to look at T-shirts or decorated cars, you're describing an environment in which people don't display themselves artistically. But then the world around us becomes the audience who receives this display and plausibly does something new with it themselves. So there's a kind of -- it almost becomes like language itself. In which we express ourselves and each baby that hears a sentence is able to pick it up and make a new sentence, so that's a lively image of collective creativity as opposed to individualist creativity.

You're coming to town to speak at VCU -- what do you plan to speak about?
I'm going to talk about this book I'm writing, which is a book in defense of cultural commons. I don't know yet which piece I'm going to talk about, but for example I may talk about this idea of collective being -- about how we imagine the creative self. There's a long tradition in America as imagining it as a solitary genius. But there's a shadow tradition in America of understanding that creativity has a collective portion as well. So part of my work is bringing that tradition out of the shadows and sort of showing how creativity can be seen as a collective mode.

I was talking to a branding expert here about these two artists' studios; one was very clean, one was messy. The artists prefer the dirty one for creativity's sake. There's an idea that a little chaos is necessary. What makes a fertile creative ground in a city?
So one idea is the studio in which the artist works should be dirty. In the trickster's stories this makes perfect sense. One old definition of dirt is that it's “matter out of place.” That is to say, if I put my shoes on the dining room table my mother will tell me to take them off because that's not where they belong, but if my shoes are in the closet that's fine; that's where they belong. So, one definition of dirt is, it's matter out of place, which is to say that any statement of what's dirty and what's clean has to do with your sense of how the world should be ordered, and if you insist on cleanliness, you insist on a particular kind of order.

So it makes perfect sense that if you want creativity, that is to say if you want a situation in which new things can arise and orders that you had not expected can begin to appear and be shaped, you have to be in a dirty environment. You have to be in an environment where people care less about the rules that came before them and are willing to stir things up and put their shoes on the dining room table.

Tricksters are in a sense “dirt workers.” They are characters mythologically who bring dirt into situations which are supposed to be clean and when they do so, something new and interesting arises. So even though they seem to be disruptive jerks, the tricksters are thought to be culture heroes, creative types who make the world freshly.

The Native American Coyote is one of the major trickster figures in myth. Are there more modern examples of the trickster?
The argument of my book is all creative artists have a touch of this. Not that they are all tricksters, but that part of one's process has to be in this mythological realm. To go back to John Cage briefly, one of Cage's simple questions was, “What's the difference between music and noise?” And by asking that question he begins to bring into music sounds that people thought did not belong in music. So that's a typical boundary question that leads to different types of creativity.

You talk a lot about the role of the environment in creativity. We have in Richmond some beautiful natural settings, but construction is finally beginning to encroach on that, either by destroying trees for houses or putting up buildings that block the view of the river. By losing that, are we threatening our creative world as well?
Thoreau has a famous essay called “Walking.” His thesis in that essay is that people need to go into the wilderness to get in touch with that part of themselves they don't already know about. Thoreau was interested in ... the degree to which the world is so much more vast and complicated than our consciousness can encompass, and we need to be reminded of that occasionally and have a sense of how little we know. And for Thoreau, nature and wilderness was one of the places you could have that experience. He felt cities were revitalized if they faced on wilderness, if they had some way of opening themselves to this unknown part. You could take this literally or metaphorically. So literally there should be places you can go from your city to be in touch with parts of creation that humankind cannot explain. But also there are wildernesses in the human mind and there should be situations in which you can get in touch with those too.

Quincy Jones is circulating a petition to present to President Obama to appoint a secretary of the arts in the Cabinet. Does it make sense to have the government administer the arts?
I think it's a good idea, but it would be a hard position to fill, because you would want somebody who's willing to move outside the box, to challenge existing authority, to help create situations in which artists can thrive. And those situations are by nature experimental and therefore potentially disruptive. So, it would take a genius to fill this position -- and if they can find that genius they should hire him.

Let me say one other thing -- the original idea behind the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, was that government cannot create artists and scholars, but government can help create the conditions under which artists and scholars can come to life and do their work. So the simpler task of such a person would be to look at the preconditions under which artists have to work. Right now, for example, you can't live in New York if you're in your twenties and trying to become a poet, because the economics are completely out of whack. So somebody should be thinking about what helps young people nurture their talents and bring them forward. And that background infrastructure is what people should be paying attention to.

The Internet is its own kind of wilderness -- nonlinear, communal, unregulated. What do you see as its role in our evolving culture?
The Internet is a new and remarkable medium in which art and ideas move around the world in a new fashion. And when it first emerged, it was in the terms we've been talking about: a wild space, a medium that had no clear rules and a lot of potential, therefore. It was a dirty space. And many things happened nobody could have predicted, because it had no rules. Nobody predicted the first spreadsheet, nobody predicted the first Web browser, nobody predicted what Google books had done, which is scan huge libraries. If someone had thought about that earlier we would have actually done that differently; we would have had a public project scan them so they weren't privately owned. But at any rate -- it has been a space that generated new and surprising things. It continues to be that, but in fact it is also now a kind of battleground between those who'd like to keep it generated, maintain that lack of closure that makes it possible for surprising things to emerge, and other people who'd like to lock it down so they can get a clear income stream out of it. And the sort of short-term for this argument -- that is an argument over 'Net neutrality, the idea of a neutral Internet -- being you try to have as few choke points and toll booths as possible so interesting things can happen. It's a good example actually of both this idea of a dirty work space and of the need for a touch of wildness.

Lewis Hyde gives the 2009 VCU Windmueller Lecture on cultural commons on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 5:30 p.m. at Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Admission is free. 828-2787.

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