Digital Sampling, the Mimetic Impulse and Appropriation in Modern Art

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Text of Quin, Digital Sampling, Apr. 1994

From Nothing

Digital Sampling, the Mimetic Impulse and Appropriation in Modern Art, by Douglas Quin

The following ideas were formulated as part of a presentation at the Smithsonian Institution for a symposium on arts 1993, technology and law sponsored by the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts--a non-profit organization founded to assist artists and arts organizations. One of the topics was issues of artists' rights, ownership, attribution, copyright and electronic data acquisition, specifically audio sampling and imaging. Included in the discussion were aspects related to the creation of artworks which are essentially derivative in nature, appropriation of copyrighted material, compilations, etc. The panel was moderated by Edward Damich, former Commissioner for the Copyright Royalty Tribunal and currently a Law Professor at George Mason University School of Law. The panel brought together a mix of attorneys, artists and an engineer. I had the pleasure of joining Bennett Lincoff, Senior Counsel to ASCAP; Christine Steiner, Assistant General Counsel to the Smithsonian Institution; Russell Kirsch, a pioneer in computer design and former head of Artificial Intelligence at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Barbara Mones-Hattal, an artist, Associate Professor of Art and Director of the Visual Information Technologies Graduate Program at George Mason University. My interest, as a panelist, was to demonstrate the use of a digital sampler and a MIDI controller and to offer some thoughts to compliment the discussion on technology and law. The following is adapted from my contribution to the panel.

As we consider the many ways in which we anticipate and attempt to determine the future impact of commerce and technology on the arts-particularly digital sampling and electronic data acquisition from the legal and proprietary standpoint-I thought that we would look briefly at some of the cultural heritage behind imitation. Digital sampling is, after all, an act of imitation or reproduction. I wish to consider the idea of mimesis, imitation, sampling, copying and appropriation within a broader art historical and aesthetic context.

While a sample is a temporal sonic event, it is also an image, an object--fluid as binary information and as a sound, and fixed in the medium of a compact disc, sampling instrument or the hard drive of a computer. As we look ahead to issues of ethics, ownership and issues of copyright, it may be interesting to briefly consider some of the cultural attitudes which have contributed to the development of this technology in the first place.

To sample, the term we use to describe the process of digitally acquiring an aural event, means to find a match or parallel to something; it also means to imitate. The root of "imitate" is found in the Greek word "mimesis," that is, "A figure of speech, whereby the supposed words or actions of another are imitated." In the arts the idea is linked with the notion of representation--in a distinctly generative context: to literally bring forth, to make visible or manifest, to present clearly in the mind's eye.

Fascination with the tactile and objective appearance of the world is one of the most enduring attributes of Western art. While it is not possible to survey the wide-ranging complexities of representation in art in the context of this paper, some general background may be useful in looking at digital sampling.

The legacy of Greece and Rome remains with us. As Susan Sontag put it, "Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato's cave, still reveling in its age-old habit, in mere images of truth." The mimetic impulse is deeply ingrained in our consciousness. Aristotle, writing in The Poetics, describes the imitative capacity as defining that which makes us uniquely human.

Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation. And it is also natural for all to delight in works of imitation. The truth of this second point is shown by experience: though the objects themselves may be painful to see, we delight to view the most realistic representations of them in art....The explanation is to be found in a further fact: to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind, however small their capacity for it; the reason of the delight in the picture is that one is at the same time learning Ü gathering the meaning of things, e.g. that the man there is so-and-so; for if one has not seen the thing before, one's pleasure will not be in the picture as an imitation of it, but will be due to the execution or colouring or some similar cause. Imitation, then, [is] natural to us... Plato, in The Republic, uses the concept of "mimesis" in his discussion of poetry. In Book X, he relates imitation to the understanding of different aspects of a tripartite reality--in which "truth" and "appearance" lie in opposition. In a phenomenological sense, Nature, born of divine mystery, is first order reality; her forms serve as the basis for all human knowledge. The activity of homo faber, humankind the "maker," describes a secondary reality; Plato's carpenter makes a bed as an imitation of the concept of an ideal bed in nature. Finally, the artist creates a facsimile of this latter form; in Plato's words,

"...the work of the painter and of all other representative artists was far removed from truth and associated with elements in us equally far removed from reason, in a fond liaison without health or truth." In The Republic artists were viewed, with some disdain, as purveyors of a tertiary reality, "at third remove from the throne of truth." The inferior status of artists in The Republic is somewhat contradictory, however; the epic poets were also venerated and served as models for moral and theological development. It was their skill with convincing and compelling representation that was valued-as a bold gesture approximating the divine. We can see this reflected in the plastic arts{}most particularly sculpture. One, of many examples, is the striking statue by Praxiteles of the god Hermes with the Infant Dionysus from the Temple of Hera at Olympus. The representation of a god, in human form, was placed within the sanctity of a temple-for distinctly didactic and spiritual purposes. As an image, it functions as a mirror of an otherwise invisible reality Ü the "real" through a glass darkly, as it were.

In contrast to the Greeks, the Romans perceived the facts of the world in greater relief and with a more rigorous, almost scientific, scrutiny. Their art, particularly biography and portraiture, brings into focus the topical minutiae of our everyday existence; it is descriptive and meticulous with regard to the manifest outward appearance of things. Throughout Pliny the Elder's Natural Histories, for example, we may discern the primacy of empirical observation and of classification as central to knowing what is truth. This held for both scientific as well as artistic inquiry.

For Lucretius, writing The Nature of the Universe in the tumultuous 1st century B.C., solace was to be found in the rationality of science: and hence art, as a branch of science. In his defense of artistic progress, Lucretius writes:

So we find that...without exception the amenities and refinements of life, song, pictures, and statues, artfully carved and polished, all were taught gradually by usage and the active mind's experience as men groped their way forward step by step. So each particular development is brought gradually to the fore by the advance of time, and reason lifts it into the light of day. Men saw one notion after another take shape within their minds until by their arts they scaled the topmost peak. Not only is art the imitation of nature, but as the concluding sentence suggests, an apotheosis on Olympus itself. Images, particularly convincing ones, are seductive; they are operative symbols for reality and may assert a more visceral and palpable impression upon us. In effect, they are reality. "It was like a scene from a movie...," is a turn of phrase we often hear used today to describe a particularly vivid experience.

To the Classical mind, then, imitation was a way of modeling and negotiating a complex reality--an act of dubious fabrication with divine aspirations. To the Greeks, mimesis was intuitive, shadowy at best; to the Romans it was an act of consciousness, fixing our transitory existence into something tangible and enduring to posterity.

In the Medieval experience, optical veracity and the Christian dialogue were problematic and conflicting: "You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth." (Genesis)

Christian artists turned away from the natural world and to the inspiration of an inner realm: thereby disembodying the mind, seat of the soul, from the body--with its spiritually vulnerable senses. Nature was, after all, irrevocably transformed and corrupted after the fall from grace. Written in the 4th Century, St. Augustine's Confessions, particularly Book X, reveal just how profound the rupture of soul and body was. In terms of figurative representation particularly, nowhere is this more clearly seen in art than in the lasting conflicts stemming from the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th Century. How could an artist represent the human and divine aspects of Christ? The ensuing visual contraction from the external appearance of the world through a spiritual lens has given us some of the most powerful metaphysical abstractions in Western art. However, the artistic imitation of nature, in search of truth, was shunned as misleading and false.

With the reawakening of the humanistic mind and the rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture during the Renaissance, mimesis was reclaimed and given extraordinary new dimension. To see was to know. In a distinctly neo-Platonic sense, DaVinci writes, "Nature has beneficently provided that throughout the world you may find something to imitate." Specifically in painting, the techniques of linear and aerial perspective, chiaroscuro-the modeling of light and dark-gave pictures a convincing spatial depth: thereby placing the viewer within the illusion. Human beings and their activity were seen as part of nature rather than something distinct from, or outside of, nature.

Furthermore, nature was not the only area where artists found inspiration to copy; works of Classical art and architecture were deemed worthy of imitation and assimilation. In his notebooks, Leonardo asks, "Which is best, to draw from nature or from the antique...?" Truth was to be found in beauty and beauty was to be found in the genius of the ancients. Art became consciously self-referential. Skill in accurate rendering, imagination and individual expression were prized and the artist, exalted. Michelangelo was called Il Divino, the divine one.

For the enterprising Dutch of the 17th Century, a newly defined, affluent middle class, or bourgeoisie, created a market demand for artists' work. No longer were church and nobility the sole consumers and patrons of the arts. It is not surprising that the subjects most sought after by this worldly merchant class were landscapes, portraits and the representation of contemporary, everyday life. Genre subjects proliferated. In this, we see the gradual transformation of artistic subject-matter: what philosopher Arthur Danto calls "the transfiguration of the commonplace," from his book of the same name. The title is, itself, an appropriation of the title of a fictional novel in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. With the exception perhaps of Rembrandt, the sacred, unless sublimated into a still-life, had no place in the Reformation mind of the Dutch artist.

As the artist's acquisitive eye settled on more of nature's myriad forms for inspiration and imitation, our sense of what an image is, and how art relates to reality, began to change. Hegel, writing at the turn of the 19th Century, illustrates some of this shift when he stated,

True reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day....Only what exists in itself is real....Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind....Far from being simple appearances and illustrations of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence. What about art? And art about what? If we extend the metaphor of art as a mirror, this represents a two-way mirror: wherein we see on the one hand, like Narcissus, our own image, and upon closer scrutiny, that fleeting glimpse of a higher reality. For Nietzsche, the idea is given elaboration in the notion that a higher reality lies beneath the surface of the ordinary. The reappraisal of the everyday was an important concept to the Metaphysical Art of Giorgio deChirico and to that of Andre Breton and the Surrealists in our own times.

Artists of the 19th Century celebrated the contemporary, the heroism of the common man and the poetics of the commonplace. "Il faut Ætre de son temps," wrote HonorÚ Daumier. Realism in art embraced not only the quotidian appearance of our lives, but also the social conditions and "realities" of our existence. Despite renewed strategies towards mimesis, the Hegelian "abyss" of artistic creation still existed. The persistent need to imitate through art and hence to know, to document and to mediate the experience of reality at this time coincides with the invention of photography.

Invented in 1839, photography has had an extraordinary effect on how we relate to images. It has given us the mechanical means to capture nature and ultimately, reality. The verisimilitude of the photographic image is an alluring reflection to behold. It is a credible witness to our lives. Photographic images, in their multiplicity and profusion, command our attention in a more compelling fashion than a painting or sculpture.

The mechanical means of photography also had an effect upon the artisanal craft of painting and sculpture in our century. On the one hand, artists were liberated from the task of naturalistic representation, but the whole mimetic basis for art was to be reconsidered. As radical a deconstruction and refabrication of reality as Picasso and Braque's Cubism was at the turn of the century, one of the most celebrated moments of this iconoclasm was the introduction of a piece of the "real" world into a painting. The first Cubist collage was Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning. In this painting, a piece of chair caning, or more precisely, a wall-paper print pattern of chair caning, was glued directly the canvas; reality is materialized within art. The appropriation of the real effaces the "abyss": the boundaries between art and life begin to dissolve.

Dada artists explored this notion of art relating to life more fully in found objects, collage, sound poetry and performance art: new means to express the spirit of the age. Marcel Duchamp's readymades-a banal assortment of appropriated objects including a urinal, a bottle rack, a snow shovel, and an inverted bicycle wheel on a stool-were presented, or rather re-presented as art. Photographic images, ticket stubs, candy wrappers and other refuse found their way into the works of Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann, among others. A number of artists, including Schwitters and Hugo Ball, worked in a variety of disciplines wherein collage strategies were employed in music/sound composition. The Ursonate (1924/25) by Kurt Schwitters is a sound poem whose palette is inspired, in part, from the sounds heard on a train journey.

The Italian Futurists looked for musical inspiration to the roar and hissing of engines and rhythmic nuances of machines. In his prophetic March 11, 1913 essay, "The Art of Noise," Luigi Russolo advocated a new music vocabulary, "It is necessary to break this restricted circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds." He goes on to say, "Although the characteristic of noise is to bring us brutally back to life, the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction." Russolo's intonarumori, or noise intoners were conceived to realize a "great variety of timbres." Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's short "radio sintesi" include A Landscape Heard (1930-1937) which calls for lapping water, crackling of a fire and the whistle of a blackbird.

John Cage, in a 1937 lecture, echoed the Futurist Manifesto,

"I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film, and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored. Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds." Cage's Imaginary Landscape (1937) reflects these ideas, and can be viewed as an extension of Futurist radiophonique theatre. Fontana Mix (1958) was a sort of sound collage, composed for magnetic tape. Samples of ambient stage, radio and field recordings were combined using indeterminate chance operations as the basis for the composition; all the sounds of life become music. This is true for the effect of 4'33", where a silent piano allows for sounds from our environment to be experienced anew.

In the 1960's, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol exalted the commonplace and raised as icons the commercial images and personalities of our times. The appropriation was unabashedly wholesale. Roy Lichtenstein, commenting on the dangers of commercialization in art--particularly the sale of his own work observed, "Anything that can be a commodity will be a commodity."

So what does all this have to do with sampling? In a way, everything. Sampling, and what is sampled (prerecorded music, nature sounds, noise, etc.) is linked to the long-standing artistic tradition of mimesis and to the Modernist idea of appropriation. Igor Stravinsky asserted, "A good composer does not imitate; he steals." Fundamentally, there is little difference between a Dada collage of appropriated images and composer John Oswald's Plunderphonics--a series of sound collages, or compositions, utilizing appropriated and deconstructed samples of other artists' music: most notably Michael Jackson and the Beatles. Nearly two decades ago Richard Trythall, in his Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis, rearranged phrases from Jerry Lee Lewis' Whole Lotta Shakin' and manipulated them using tape recorders. Experiencing recorded sound and using recordings of sound to make music are fairly recent developments, historically speaking.

Until 1878, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, sound could only be experienced in realtime as a unique sequence of events-never to be heard again. Until the Industrial Revolution, for that matter, the world was a pretty quiet place: never silent but, thunder and volcanos excepted, on the whole rather still. Machines have changed all that. Not only have noisy machines altered the soundscape in which we exist, but so have the recording/playback machines by which we experience sound. For example, a jogger running through a park surrounded by the sounds of insects, the wind in the trees, a cascading creek and assorted birds may have imposed another aural reality upon the environment by listening to a Walkman with music by Madonna or Metallica. The situation represents a profound restructuring of reality-a disparate and unrelated set of sensory circumstances. The Canadian composer, R. Murray Schafer refers to this as "schizophonic."

Sound recording, or sampling, is similar to taking a photograph. It is an act of appropriation, acquisition and potentially an act of aggression: we "take" a picture, and a sound recording is also a "take." In a fixed medium-wax, vinyl, magnetic tape{}a sound becomes an object, to be owned, reproduced, bought and sold. Like photography, recorded sound technology has altered how we conceive of and structure reality. As Susan Sontag put it, photographs have taught us "...a new visual code....They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing." The same holds true for recorded sound. A recording of an event gives us, secondhand, an enriched sensory experience; it empowers the imagination and gives us ownership of the illusive moment-the temporal domain. How we listen to and experience sound is undergoing a profound "paradigm shift," to coin Thomas Kuhn's term.

As we consider proprietary rights and sampling, we need to address perhaps not only traditional concepts of ownership as they relate to a product or a tangible object, but also to consider alternative approaches to attribution and compensation. In this, it seems as though our legal concepts of intellectual property remain bound to the more traditional objects wherein the ideas of an artist are fixed: a book, a published score, a film, a sculpture, a tape recording, etc. What about hardware, software, programming and algorithm design as they relate to creative process and potential product? Flexible compensatory structures, such as licensing fees and royalties have existed. Legislative initiative and solutions should be sought, rather than litigation. The electronic and mechanical realization, reproduction or recreation of a sound involves many more steps, collective wisdom, and means of creation than can be possessed by one person.

This article first appeared The Journal for the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States, Volume IX, #1, April, 1994.

© 1994 Douglas Quin

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