March 16, 2004

Art, commerce, politics. Last week at the law school we had a discussion about free speech, privacy, and commerce, prompted by an article that proposed limiting the first amendment free speech clause to political speech (to be protected absolutely), realigning personal expression rights with the right of privacy (to be protected subject to balancing), and withdrawing protection for expression that is not political or personal. Commercial speech is the big loser in the realignment. This has left me thinking about not just the way the personal is political but also the way the personal is commercial. Filmmaking, for example, is a huge commercial enterprise. So is TV. The lone artist at his easel or writer with a typewriter is romantic--I'm picturing Johnny Depp in Secret Window. ...

Long interlude taken at this point in the writing to buy several Depp DVDs on Amazon ... Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Don Juan De Marco, Dead Man, Benny and Joon (with Mary Stuart Masterson at her easel), and Donnie Brasco .... This art/commerce interlude ties to the point I'm going to make.

The lone artist at his easel or writer with a typewriter is romantic but not the source of the kind of artistic expression most of us spend our time taking in. Where is the line between personal expression and commerce? I think Depp is an immensely individualistic artist, making eccentric choices, yet only appearing in works that are the result of elaborate commercial production, and I'm caught up in the stream of commerce buying the films, but also reaching out to an artistic experience.

And it's not just films, other products are personally defining, even if advertisers push us to define ourselves with products. I had my new iBook on the table during the discussion of free speech and couldn't help feeling personally expressed by it. Earlier that day, one colleague had dropped by to show off her iPod and another to show off a new text-messaging cell phone. Buying clothes, buying a car, choosing a soda. These are also personal expressions. Even if these aren't the loftiest aspects of personal expression, they matter, just like how you cut your hair matters. There's even a political dimension. Andy Warhol said it well:

What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

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