On the artist – critic relationship, a response to “On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy,” by Stitch

This letter serves as a brief response to the excellent editorial recently brought forward by Stitch at Teen Vogue, “On Fanfiction, Fandom and Why Criticism is Healthy.” In it, Stitch puts forward an argument for why there should be space for criticism within fanfiction communities, and I do agree with the general broad strokes of their assertion.

Stitch explores, in much the same vein that I did, how fannishness leans into a sense of enthusiasm that precludes other emotional responses to art being seen as valid and proposes that, again as I have in the past, that critique of an artform represents a legitimate form of art enjoyment. A critic enjoys the act of criticism. However I do have a small dispute with some of Stich’s framing, which I hope they will take in good faith.

Specifically, Stitch does something very common in discussion of “fan” phenomena and imagines fandom as a territory or space. Fandom, in such a structure, is the terrain in which artists responding to a work, critics dissecting it and enthusiasts of an artwork congregate and share their thoughts. The conflict that thus arises is one of belonging. Fans are people who like a thing which is why it seems like critics must fight for a space within fandom. The critical impulse to reveal a piece of media’s secret contours and to, as Lyotard might put it, “work as the sun does when you’re sunbathing or taking grass,” often seems at odds with the enthusiasm of the fan in much the same way that the enthusiasm of a butcher might seem out of place at a meeting of a pot-bellied pig fancier’s club.

I do think this is a mistake – fandom isn’t a place you are so much as a face you present. What’s more, people are dividual and may present different faces at different places and different times. So when I talk about the contradictions between these faces of response to art, please don’t think I’m totalizing any given person to just one of these identities that they must choose like some team. Rather I’m talking about the tensions that occur when engaging with art.

I tend to treat response to art as having three principal faces with the third divided into two sub-modes. The first is indifference. The indifferent response to art could be mild amusement or even strong revulsion but it is a reaction that desires to disengage from the art. It doesn’t find the art something it wants to respond to. The indifferent has no interest in any form of communication with the art.

The second face is the fannish face. This is representative of the person who wants to express enthusiasm for the art. It is something of a limited opposite to the indifferent face except that enthusiasm is the only allowable mode of response. People presenting a fannish face, defined by their absolute enthusiasm for a work, frequently act as gatekeepers and norm-setters. I dislike the extent to which this face has been given precedence in discourse surrounding art, including the extent to which the idea of the “fan” has come to subsume the final face which is that of the artist/critic.

I am uncomfortable with the categories of the fan-artist, the fan-critic or the fan-critic-of-fan-artist. This is because, while there is vast overlap between the revelations of the artist or critic, I find both of these responses to art to be mutually exclusive from fannish totalizing enthusiasm. A fan polices the boundaries of spoilers because the being in the know is one of the perimeters that delineates who may authentically wear the fan face.

An artist authentically presents the face of the artist by doing art. A critic authentically presents the face of the critic by doing critique. Neither of these play nicely with fannish territoriality. Now, again, people are dividual. A person can be a fan and be an artist both. But thy cannot be a fan in the moment they go about creating art. The “fanfiction writer” is thus a misnomer. There’s no fan in their fiction. They are an artist responding to art.

Enter the critic. If we treat (fan)fiction as a form of responsive art, a transformative repetition that takes the familiar elements of the art and creates something new from it, then we approach that non-productive boundary of undifferentiation from which production arises. The artist destroys to create. But this destruction is not uncontrolled. The process of disassembling art, revealing its secrets, spreading out its parts, “like smooth sleeping dolphins,” is the act of critique, which, Lyotard also reminds us, is a form of religious act. I would say it becomes something of a ritual sacrifice, ending the old artwork in a manner that makes space for new growth. While, for some artists, the critique – the moment of sacrifice where the work upon the altar is cut apart and its secrets revealed – is the end, artists must also be critics to create art. They must come to know the secrets of a work to transform it.

Artists are sometimes tricked into believing their passion is equivalent to fannish enthusiasm. Blake understood this intimately when he said, “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton’s fannish enthusiasm for God rings hollow next to the damning critique of the Devil. This is because, as Blake says, Milton was a true poet; and a true artist is also a critic in their nature rather than a fan.

I believe (fan)fiction writers would be well served to remember that they are also critics. If their work creates critique all this means is that the art has broken the barrier of the indifferent face and inspired another person to engage authentically with it. Enthusiasm is a childish aim in the appreciation of art next to the sacred sacrifice of critique and the promethean act of creation. The territory of fandom is an imagined place. The police on the borders are children who, by the act of showing only enthusiasm for art, cannot defend it.

Where there are artists there are also critics. The face of the critic is indivisible from the face of the artist. An artist enjoys their art and so too does a critic enjoy their critique. I derive as much passion, as much joie de vivre from savaging a truly awful art as I do from gushing about a true masterpiece. Excluding the more frightening passions of the critic ultimately only harms artists. (Fan)fiction writers, embrace the satanic critic. You are of our party anyhow.

Revisiting the ownership of fanfiction: Adam Ellis and Keratin

We had an interesting case example about the boundaries of fanfiction today when the popular online cartoonist, Adam Ellis, claimed the short film Keratin plagiarized his own work. I think this is a fascinating example of the way in which the delineation of ownership sets the boundaries of fanfiction, because on one hand, it’s trivially evident that Keratin is a fan work.

James Andrew MacKenzie Wilson does not appear to have any prior film credits to his name, while the other person credited with the Keratin short (Andrew Butler) has only a few prior credits. This short, which has been working the festival circuit, seemed like an opportunity for two early-career directors to demonstrate what they can do with a camera and with actors.

But of course they didn’t pay for their storyboard. Instead they chose a comic they were clearly fond of and used it as their storyboard. As I talked about previously, fanfiction is the act of creating art in dialog with and derivative art for which the artist cannot claim ownership. What problematizes this here is that the artists behind the film did, in fact, claim ownership of Keratin though not of the Ellis storyboard that obviously informed it.

Now I’m seeing a lot of the same people who were rushing to the defense of fanfiction during the recent discourse on the topic, expressing outrage at the uncredited use of Ellis’ art as a storyboard. And I get it, because these two men are building prestige, and possibly making money, off the back of Ellis’ creative labour. Their work is clearly derivative.

However derivation is a natural component of the artistic process. We might as well complain that Goya’s work was derivative of Reubens.

Derivation and transformation bringing about that which would not be but for the art

In both Goya’s depiction of Saturn devouring his son and that of Reubens, the monstrous father looms above his child-prey in the panel. Both are cloaked in darkness, the ground beneath their feet indistinct, the sky a void. Saturn, in both instances, show a loathsome muscular physicality, but in both cases his genitals are concealed, abstracting Saturn from the generative aspect of the father. He is the father as unmaker, as the terrible presence that overcomes the child and leaves him naked and consumed.

Our only principal difference is a change in the treatment of the son. For Reubens, the son is a subject, his abjection and terror are a shocking central motif of the frame. For Goya the son is an object, reduced to just so much meat to be consumed.

In many art history classes, Goya’s painting is a central piece of study. Our study of Reubens is more likely to focus on his depiction of the female form. Goya is the master of the image of the devouring father in his darkness. Reubens the master of the fecund and generative. This could be seen as appropriate considering the way Goya consumes Reubens’ motifs in the creation of his monstrous masterpiece.

And through this process of derivation, through this act of grazing upon the intellectual commons sowed by Reubens, Goya created a truly great work of art. And at this point I’ll pause to describe my criterion for calling Goya’s work great; it certainly doesn’t lie in the technical excellence of the work. In every technical manner, Reubens is the superior painter, the greater craftsman.

But Goya’s work, the manic wildness in the eyes of Saturn, the way that his divine child has been reduced to a cadaver, an object devoid of hands or of a head, of any of the markers of subjectivity we expect, creates, in the depiction of Saturn, that which would not be but for the art. How could we come to understand Saturn in the way we do through Goya’s art if we did not see Goya’s painting?

So we can do away with the idea that a work of art being derivative invalidates it as a work of art. But there is a question of boundaries here beyond the question of ownership. And that is this: is a storyboard part of a film or is a film a work of art derived from a storyboard, a distinct artistic moment?

I found a page recently that contains several samples of storyboards from famous films. I want to look at one specific example from it here for a moment.

Even in this very limited set, we can see both how the storyboard realized the vision of the film but also how it differed from it. The title of the film in the opening crawl was changed, the text became flat against a star field rather than the three-dimensional objects of the first panel. The design of C3P0 changed, became more mechanical and obviously artificial between storyboard and film. It’s evident that the storyboard is art. And it is evident that the storyboard informs the art of the film; but is the storyboard a being-in-itself or is it simply one of the faces Star Wars presents us? If it is, in fact, a part of Star Wars and not an independent artwork, how do we address the changes that occur in the process of derivation?

But of course, it was never entirely about the independence of the art so much as it was about the ownership of the art. So by the same token, who has the moral right to Star Wars: George Lucas or Joe Johnson and Alex Tavoularis, who drew the storyboards?

And furthermore, does the fact that the storyboards to Star Wars are sold by a book, an object separate from the movie, have any impact on the extent to which the storyboard is a being-in-itself rather than a being-for-another? Should we consider then the author of the storyboard to be Lucasfilm LTD? Is the company then an independent being? And if so did it die when it was consumed by Disney? How, aside from the artificiality of ownership contract can we assign the right to claim Star Wars as a work-that-is-theirs to Disney and not to Tavoluaris?

Who owns an original? Who owns a derivative? Where do those boundaries lie? I don’t suspect that any of these questions will be answered today. I am frustrated that ownership must so often intrude upon art. It’s trivially obvious that derivation and transformation play a role in the creation of art: derivation as transformation is one of the principal tools of artistic endeavor, and as I discussed in a previous essay, transformation is first a process of unmaking. If the original object of artistic inspiration is unmade in the process of transformation, any derivation is to be considered a new thing: the phoenix arising from the ashes of the death of the original work. But capital doesn’t recognize these patterns of creation and destruction. Instead it recognizes only the contract and the right to own. Capital wants to hold everything in stasis.

Ultimately this is a dispute over three questions in the realm of the world we live in, the world of capital’s boundaries. The first is legal. Is Keratin sufficiently transformative to survive litigation through the mechanism of fair use? I am not a lawyer and must carefully state that this is not legal advice, but my instinct is that, yes, it is transformative. It is a work in an entirely different medium. The distance between the comic and the film is far vaster than that between Reubens and Goya.

The second question: does Ellis have a moral right to the work? This one I am uncertain of for the same reason I question who holds the moral right to Star Wars.

The third question: should Ellis be paid? This is, of course, distinct from the legal question of must Ellis be paid. And this is one where a fair moral argument could be held in either direction. However a word of caution I’d advise commentariat on here: please consider the extent to which this situation differs from Twilight and Thirty Shades of Grey. In each case, one artist took the work of another and unmade it in a transformative act into the ground for new art. In each case, the derivation is clear. If not for Stephanie Meyer, there would be no E.L. James.

If you feel E.L. James had no ethical requirement to pay Stephanie Meyers for her transformative-derivative work, you should probably err likewise here, notwithstanding Ellis’ popularity. And meanwhile, perhaps we should reserve or outrage for an economic system that pits artists against themselves and their own artistic impulses in the name of carefully delineated boundaries of ownership.