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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Can you copyright 'The Sacred'?

There's been a little social media storm in the pagan community recently over a facebook post by Zsuzsanna Budapest, writer of the well-known chant 'We all come from the Goddess'.


She's got two issues - one is that some people have recorded her song without permission or giving her credit, which is a fair enough thing to gripe about.


The other is that people have added a verse about the God and she's not very happy about it.  So unhappy in fact, she's threatened to hex anyone who does it again.


She concludes her argument with the statement that her song is 'sacred', which left me feeling confused.


Now, I get the idea behind copyright - it protects people's work from being claimed by others, or profited from without the original artist being paid.  In a world where art is bought and sold, this protection is needed.


However, the idea of 'authorship' is a relatively modern construct, and a particularly Western one. Most cultures have songs, artworks and ideas which are claimed by the entire tribe, not one individual, in most cases nobody will even KNOW who wrote, drew or designed something.  Songs and ideas that take this form are a living entity, they change, evolve and are added to as the years pass.  


The idea that art ultimately belongs to the culture it arises in is not such a ridiculous notion.  No artist could create in a vacuum, we all build on what has come before.  Even the very tools we use to create (colours, words, materials) are not our own, they are the invention of thousands of other people.  So are the styles we use, the references we make.... it's hard to tell where our ideas start and everyone else's finishes, to be honest.


With the Goddess song, as with so many works of art, humans did what we always do with art.  We took it on board, we added to it, it became OURS - ours to sing, add to, play with, fit in with other songs we knew. It became a living thing, in short.


Problem is, art is only yours in in our culture if you PAY FOR IT (and even then, it's usually only partly yours, or yours for a set period of time, and with conditions attached).


Whilst we were all happily singing along, we forget the fact that it 'belongs' to the person who wrote it, not to us at all.  Our audacity in adding verses to it has, in fact, enraged the author to the point of threats of hexing!


The trumpeting of 'authorship' by the art community does seem to me to be particularly insidious, undermining a great deal of what art is meant to be about, and severely limiting us as artists and as a culture.  


Let's be perfectly blunt here: if there was no money involved, we'd probably be a whole lot less bothered about it.  We'd be thrilled that lots of people were enjoying our work, that it had taken on a life of it's own, that it had grown wings and flown the nest.   


Which points to some pretty shallow motives for the whole 'I made this' obsession - in short, we want to be acknowledged so that we can make money and bask in personal fame from our work - hardly noble causes, either of those things!  Money and fame are nice and all, but when they become the motive behind art, well..... we all know how that story ends.  They're a nice perk, if you can get it, but they should never be a major focus.


Now, let me make it clear that, if somebody else is making money from something we created, then it's only fair they share the money with us.  But other than that, once you put an artwork out into the world, I believe it belongs to the world (at least if you're really lucky it does, most artwork just vanishes into obscurity).  


So, protect yourself from financial exploitation by all means, but put the damn thing in perspective!  Your art isn't YOURS, not once you share it.  It's bigger than that, and far more important.


To kid yourself that you can control the meaning or evolution of your art once it leaves your hands, is the ultimate self delusion.  Ask poor old Yves Klein (well, you can't, because his distress at how HIS work was interpreted was so great, it is said to have killed him).


Which brings me back to Zsuzanna.  Her song, she says, is sacred - implying that she wrote it in honour of the Goddess, that in fact it BELONGS to the Goddess.  Since, in the words of this very song 'We all come from the Goddess', does that not mean the song belongs to .... well .... everyone?

All I know is that I was pretty tired of that song anyway, and her commodification of it has made it less than sacred for me.  I'll be singing another song from now on!

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