Books, paintings, collections, orchestras, theatres -- all used to be human activities in the here and now, quite concrete, specific, local and received through the senses. When the industrial age, the machinery of standardizing and duplicating, caused all these wonderful things to be accessible to the masses via duplication and repetition (which might be called “publishing”), they prompted the creation of institutions to guide them: museums, galleries, foundries, printing plants, acting companies, movie companies, radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, universities and so on.
This was the state of things when Enzentsberger said “the human mind is reproduced as a social product.” And then Haacke talked about the system of exchange between museums and corporations and corporate leaders which I’m constantly grumbling about in terms of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, which controls books, auctions, personal buyers, websites, and the like throughout that genre.
It was a matter of convenient role specialization. Artists and authors of the “artesian” kind -- that is, the ones who cannot help but create and who do it on their own terms -- are not well-equipped to be publicizers, sales managers, or even likely to have the necessary capital to sustain a building. So other people, entrepreneurs, come along who saw the potential and agreed to contribute capital to publicize and record, edit and distribute. Somehow along the line they, who were at first so grateful and took maybe ten per cent of profits, began to take a third and then half and now under some circumstances they let the artist or writer have less than ten per cent. And no control. Today fabrication costs much less. (Lower quality contributes.) When the artists and authors began to dry up under this regime, the entrepreneurs went to faux products, processed with the added elements of sex, violence, and crime, or maybe cut-and-paste books assembled out of pirated others.
I’ve watched this in a very ground level way. In 1961, starting out, Bob Scriver had built a museum and studio. While I was with him, we built a foundry. Our product was excellent, our profit was a little more than it would have been if we hadn’t done our own fabrication and sales. What we lacked was big-time contacts in the Western art world, but that hardly existed yet. Harold McCracken tells about the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now called the Smithsonian of the West) being nothing but a huge space where his heels echoed on the terrazzo. He wondered how he would ever fill it. So Bob’s career grew with that expansion. He always kept control. Even tried to keep control after his death. But now there’s a cowboy artist under every mesquite: young, gifted and building on the older artists like Bob.
Bob’s best friend from childhood, Ace Powell, struggled with alcoholism. It’s not unlike HIV-AIDS, which was unknown at the time, or TB or polio -- any chronic physical burden. It made Ace vulnerable to capitalists who could keep him dependent on them. He produced so much work, in so many circumstances, even after his heart, lungs and liver were nearly shot (which was the only way I ever knew him) that he was never really controlled by anyone, not even himself. There are plenty of authors like that. The great irony was that Ace produced so much work that it didn’t seem valuable to the people who think rareness is a marker of value.
In our contemporary world it is the capitalist entrepreneur who is admired and listened to. Everything is for sale, the prevailing art is the art of negotiation. The Euro-markers of quality have been exploded by experiments and counter-movements.
But now everything is changing again. Now we’ve made a new transition that allows all these created things to be resolved into code. The internet is like the transporter in Star Trek when a crew member stepped into it and said, “Beam me up, Scottie!” Then there were a lot of sparkles and, with luck, the same person was reassembled at the other end (without parts of either Jeff Goldblum or a fly somehow incorporated). We have learned how to make everything into code: send it, share it, store it, interpret it, mess with it. Indeed, we know the code for our own bodies and many other species, even ones that no longer exist. But once things are coded, they can be recreated, pirated, passed around, mashed, morphed, and Photoshopped.
What used to be the physical and mechanical reproduction of something -- which we called publishing -- is now code. It cannot be contained. It can be cross-media. It can transmute under your hand, translate into a different language, shift into another key or instrument or timebeat, swap colors, remove backgrounds, change the names of the characters. So what does being an artist, a creator, really mean if the consumer has total control over the creation? (Does God ask this question?)
There is another change, which goes by the awkward name of “globalization.” Suddenly we have broken through to what is politely called “the developing world.” Illiterate people. thus not print-dominated. Unexpectedly the newest and most blow-you-away artists of the American West are Chinese, traditionally trained, newly immigrated and gracefully recovering the hidden history of the Chinese American West -- so entwined with gold, railroads and -- well, admit it -- laundry and food. In a reciprocal trend, artists of the American West begin to visit China and Russia where the vast grasslands are quite like the prairie and the Mongolians still ride horses.
I “travel” vicariously with another group, young men shoved out to the margin. In the American West they would have been boys pushed out of families, the original cheap labor called “cow” boys. They died so much that their bones are scattered in as many places as the bison, though there weren’t that many boys. In those days it was trauma and TB that killed them -- different alphabet disease today.
So add it up: boys who create on the Internet, an awakening and immense audience newly gaining access, and a cost so low -- the device, the electricity, and internet access -- and the result is so far different from “publishing” that no one even has the terms to talk about it. Except that “the human mind is reproduced as a social product.” It bypasses the system of exchange between museums and corporations and corporate leaders. These dinosaur institutions are fighting back as hard as they can: making deals with Internet providers and social websites, shaking the old danger rattles (they will take your money, they will kidnap your children), collaborating with governments and military bodies (they will steal your secrets, they will reveal your plans). All our lives are changed. But now the energy has gone back to the authors and artists and activists. And that’s what’s happened to publishing.