Why is it either/or? Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk

I watched this Amanda Palmer TED Talk “The Art of Asking” over the weekend and  found it both remarkable and inspiring.  Her frankness and humanity are unassailable.  Who can argue with an artist who says, “I put myself and my work out there, I ask to be embraced, and I am embraced”?  Kudos to her for doing it.  Kudos to her for talking about it.  But if we are meant to draw a conclusion that her experience is the new model, as some will claim, I think we’d do well to remember that there is more than one kind of artist and more than one medium; and I don’t know why the principle of creators’ rights is not seen as inclusive rather than exclusive in this regard.

As much as I enjoyed Palmer’s talk, my immediate thought after watching it was about one of my favorite authors whose work is no less provocative in literary form than Palmer’s is in music and performance. John Irving still writes prodigiously in longhand, and his own descriptions of his work habits reflect an asceticism typical of most serious authors.  I don’t think Mr. Irving takes time to tweet let alone crowd-surf, and he is unlikely ever to strip down so that his fans can sign his naked body (at least let’s hope not). But jokes aside, we are blessed to have a society that produces both the Amanda Palmers and the John Irvings; and I don’t understand why anyone thinks we need to choose a system that would favor one over the other.  Believe it or not, the one unifying principle that supports these two artists, as well as all others, is copyright.

Copyright doesn’t say Amanda Palmer can’t mange her career as she sees fit; it says that it is her absolute right to do so.  Combine that right with the First Amendment, and she’s a force to reckon with.  But so is the comparatively reclusive novelist who may best be capable of “connecting with fans” only through his writing. Copyright gives that author the freedom to stay home, indulge in one of the most solitary activities imaginable, and accept publishing deals, if that’s what best serves the work.  And nothing about that model prevents the Amanda Palmers of the world from doing things in a completely opposite manner.

It’s hard enough to be an artist and to seek approval in the form of both praise and patronage, which Palmer makes abundantly clear in her talk.  But creators’ journeys are as varied and unpredictable as the work itself.  In his novel Until I Find You, Irving writes of his actor protagonist that there are two things that can’t be controlled — where your first break will come from, and where that break will lead.  Amanda Palmer is lucky to have found the harmony between her work, herself, and her approach to marketing; and I think there’s a reason we see musicians find this balance more readily than some artists in other media.  But why does Palmer’s success in this regard suggest that we would devalue other voices that speak loudest from very quiet places not shared with the entire world?

At its core, regardless of all the noise, copyright simply bestows the right of choice upon the individual.  So, while I applaud Ms. Palmer for her courage and for sharing her experiences, I also assert that the conclusion we draw from her insight should not be that the future of art is an either/or approach to the rights of the creator.

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