In all conscience, I thought I’d comment

I was away at conferences during this issue of Anvil and Fast Food Fiction over a blogspot piece by Adam David. As I said earlier, I’d post comments when I got home.

It’s so very rare that I feel certainty over an issue. There are principles of art in this issue that for me are incontrovertible, and the case troubles me. I felt shame for Anvil and the editors. I did write my publisher at Anvil about this. I absolutely love and respect her. For a very long time, I carried her words for me on the death of my husband, Arne, like a chalice, as James Joyce once said of an unnameable grace in the story “Araby.” I have long trusted in her wisdom. And I did write Mookie Lacuesta, whose work I admire. I read Mookie’s and Mark Anthony Cayanan’s books on the plane when I was flying back from the Philippines last year, and it was a joy to be so immersed in their poems. Of course, I know the work of Adam David and his partner, Chingbee Cruz, as well. When I read Adam’s El Bimbo Variations, I thought it was one of the best works of Filipino fiction I’d read in a long time. And Chingbee is one of the best poets we have, period. But much as I admire the work of Adam and Chingbee, if they were on the opposite side of this issue, I’d throw them under the bus as well (figuratively only).

There may be valid legal reasons behind Anvil’s action. But just because one can sue does not mean one should. This is an ethical issue of which art is the hinge. I do think the issue of power is a problem. Downplaying the inequality here, because after all in the legal arena all is fair game, also downplays the ethical questions of such a lawsuit against an artist and critic who is simply doing his work.

Obviously, I disagree that the rights or art of the artists in the anthology were eroded by Adam David’s work, which I confess I enjoyed before its final conceptualization, that is, its erasure (I have not yet read the anthology). As a critical gesture, the reuse of sentences is valid. As a conceptual gesture, the reuse of sentences is also valid. But above all, the use of others’ art to craft art is simply a time-honored, old-fashioned, in fact hoary matter of art. The history of art tells us too often art is a form of appropriation. It is hard to read Dante’s Inferno and not see how closely Dante was appropriating the scene with the shades in Virgil’s Aeneid, which in turn appropriated Odysseus’s descent to the underworld in Homer’s Odyssey. Of course, each writer did tricks with the other’s text—and we will not know what Homer thought of Virgil or Virgil of Dante, since they were quite dead by the time their work was purloined.

In the case of this anthology, of course, the writers are alive—but so is the purloining tradition of art.

If you look at a work by Picasso painted in Antibes in 1946, La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life), the piping fauns and dancing girl look refreshingly original—it is Picasso’s celebration of European survival, and especially his own and his family’s survival in France, after the Second World War. But when you look at a work by Matisse, Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), you immediately see Picasso’s plagiarism, his astonishing and blatant reuse of Matisse’s piping fauns and dancing girl. Matisse sued no one—and he was living right next door, in Nice. Of course, it is Picasso who is supposed to have said—bad artists copy, great artists steal. Whether Adam David’s work was a copy or a steal is up to the reader. But in either case, it’s been done before—it’s called doing art.

le bonheur de vivre matisseLe bonheur de vivre. Matisse, 1905-6.

la joie de vivre picassoLa joie de vivre. Picasso, 1946.

That is why when artists in the middle of the last century made a great game of copying, recycling texts within texts, and so on, it’s precisely the reflexivity of these acts that gave those conceptual pieces power—because such conceptualism simply made transparent what artists have been doing all along. And with technology, of course, the ways found texts are foundational in certain forms of art are inevitable, our age of mechanical reproduction being what it is.

I know my own response to this issue also has to do with the kinds of art I do and enjoy. In my current novel, I am copying Jose Garcia Villa word for word and putting his poems into the mouths both of American soldiers and Filipino revolutionaries in the Filipino-American war—it’s an experiment, to see what happens to the poems of Villa when placed so, because I am struck by how Villa’s own genealogy is star-crossed by that unknown war (Villa is the America-phonic son of an America-phobic revolutionary, Simeon Villa; he hated his dad). The other texts I am copying are operas, because I am writing about the Balangiga massacre, which has too much opera in it (and it gives me an excuse to go to the opera). In The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, I reused, among others, Francisco Balagtas’s Florante at Laura (directly copying but with comic variation a translation by Virgilio Almario), Modesto de Castro’s Urbana at Feliza, Voltaire’s Candide, riddles in Damiana Eugenio’s book, novenas, Wikipedia pages of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, and Rizal’s letters, Ateneo journal, and unfinished novel Makamisa, of which I used my own translations but cribbed from Ambeth Ocampo’s text. Raymundo Mata is stitched together with appropriations, to convey my sense of the Philippines as a compendium of translated, distorted, and thus distorting texts. People persist in calling such works experimental, when in fact the Bible, too, is a compendium of translated, distorted, and distorting texts, with sources insufficiently cited.

Adam David’s piece was ingenious in that it was simultaneously a work of structural craftsmanship and a work of criticism; like the purloined letter in Poe’s tale, it was an inverted glove of a work. As Poe’s detective Dupin said of the letter captured from the monstrous Minister D—: “It was clear to me that the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out, re-directed, and re-sealed.” In the case of David’s purloined text, one surface of it, the immediately readable piece, was that of a tech-supported Oulipo art-piece, in which the constraint was randomizing software and anthology sentences encrypted into a machine. But at the same time, the exact same text could be turned “as a glove, inside out,” and tested as a possible critique of itself. That is, the text was also deliberately set up, or, since the pun falls into my ungloved hand, it was a set-up, in which the exact same text was to be “turned…inside out, redirected, and re-sealed”—to speak against itself. For me, the simultaneity of the texts (art-text and criticism-text) was precisely its craft; I laughed. It was a devious critical trick, if that was what he intended. But even so it is no reason for threatening a lawsuit. But good humor in this case seems to be in short supply.

Oddly enough, Poe’s “Purloined Letter” is a tale of revenge. I talked about this lawsuit issue with a writer-friend here who lives in the Philippines as well. The friend tells me there are personal stories behind this, some mini-Oresteian trilogy of a revenge plot, that I do not know about. But my point is—those personal stories are contingent, but the defense of art is necessary. We are too jaded when we declare: let a lawsuit run its course. It’s too heavy a bludgeon. I am not so sure if all workers of art are also not somehow eroded, our horizons diminished when the grievance of the powerful outlaws art. I respect everyone involved in this upsetting affair. There are too many other sad things going on in the world, and this issue is very minor in the scheme of things. But I simply wish to state my support for Adam David in this matter, with all due respect to all the artists involved.