Friday, December 18, 2009


This week I reprint an updated version of a column that originally appeared in the Times-News in November 2002.

Isaac Rosenfeld had דזשאָיע דע וויוורע. I dare to use Yiddish for the term “joie de vivre” because the World Wide Web, not conceived until well after his premature death, allows me to translate French to Yiddish online, even though I do not know the Hebrew alphabet. Rosenfeld, who was as well versed in Yiddish as in English, would have been amused.

I met Isaac Rosenfeld when I was an undergraduate physics major at the University of Minnesota and he was a faculty member in the English department. At the time, that department was outstanding: Allen Tate was there, Robert Penn Warren had just left for Yale and his influence continued, and a coterie of promising young faculty included Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Morgan Blum and Isaac Rosenfeld. All these younger faculty taught undergraduate courses such as the “world humanities” course in which I was enrolled.

Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld had grown up together in Chicago, ambitious children of immigrant Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement, friends and competitors. Bellow claimed that Rosenfeld was the only fourteen-year-old in Chicago to have read all of Immanuel Kant. Rosenfeld’s early New York success in the 1940’s led Bellow (still in Chicago) to consider that he had been left in the dust. Yet Bellow is the Nobel Prize winner, while Rosenfeld left only his voluminous journals and five incomplete book manuscripts when he died at age thirty-eight, ten years after his one novel was published.

The English department at the University of Minnesota in the 1950’s was a magnet for literature students. I often ate in the dormitory cafeteria with graduate students who considered Rosenfeld to be the golden boy among the young faculty. A poet and essayist who was profusely published in the Partisan Review and other national literary magazines, he was considered possibly the next great American novelist. One reviewer compared his first novel Passage from Home (1946) to Henry James’ What Maisie Knew.

The course that I took from Rosenfeld focused on late nineteenth century art, literature and philosophy, and he chose to spend almost half the term on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He linked Marx, Freud, and other writers of the time to that monumental work that combines literature with philosophical thought and political commentary. Only much later, after moving to Western North Carolina, did I discover that Rosenfeld had taught War and Peace the previous summer at Black Mountain College. He had provided me my first encounter with the influence of Black Mountain College. Then while I was in graduate school I received word that he had died from a heart attack at age thirty-eight.

Even to his closest friends, he became known as an author who had not lived up to his potential. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky declared in a 2000 newspaper interview that his favorite poem was a Yiddish translation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pinsky attributed the translation to Saul Bellow, who promptly corrected him. The ironic poem, a loose translation of Prufrock into Jewish cultural terms, is the work of Isaac Rosenfeld, and can be accessed at Here it is for my readers who are literate in Yiddish:

Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok

Nu-zhe, kum-zhe, ikh un du, 

Ven der ovnt shteyt uf kegn dem himl 

Vi a leymener goylm af Tisha b'Av

Lomir geyn zikh 

Durkh geselakh vos dreyen zikh 

Vi di bord fun dem rov

Oy, Bashe, freg nisht keyn kashe, 

A dayge dir

Oyf der vant fun dem koshern restorant 

Hengt a shmutsiker betgevant 

Un vantsn tantsn karahod

In tsimer vu di vayber zenen 

Ret men fun Marx un Lenin

Ike ver alt...ikh ver alt... 

Es vert mir in pupik kalt

Zol ikh oykemen di hor, meg ikh oyfesn a floym? 

Ikh vel tskatsheven di hoyzn 

un shpatsirn bay dem yam,

Ikh vel hern di yam-moydn 

zingen khad gadyo

Ikh vel zey entfernv 


© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #463
December 18, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009


After eight years and 423 Sunday columns, Arts Spectrum ceased appearing in print in March 2009. It continues on the web, keeping abreast of the visual and performing arts scene in Western North Carolina through weekly columns with no revenue.

The search for a sustainable financial model for serious journalism is time-consuming. Currently concentrating on support for Arts Spectrum, I am reprinting some past columns. This week's post is
an edited version of two columns that originally appeared in the Times-News in September 2004. The focus is on changes in copyright law that favor large entertainment corporations, impair creativity, and violate the intent of the U.S. constitution.

Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the cartoon movie with synchronized sound that made Mickey Mouse a star. Walt Disney’s fame began with that creation. At that time, copyright protection lasted for 28 years, and could be extended for a second 28 years. The copyright on Mickey Mouse would have expired in 1984, after which the material would pass into the public domain and could be used or adapted by anyone. Since 1984, we could all be making our own Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and selling them, without getting permission or paying royalties to Walt Disney.

It was self-serving that Walt Disney, Inc. lobbied in 1976 along with other entertainment corporations for changes in the laws of intellectual property that extended existing copyrights by 19 years. In 1998 the “content industry” (Fox, Disney, Time-Warner and others) lobbied congress for the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” that added another 20 years. Mickey became exclusively Disney corporate property until 2018.

The United States Constitution, Article I, section 8, clause 8, states that “Congress has the power to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Intellectual property law is a balancing act, resulting in a fair contract between creators and society. Constitutionally, the goal is to promote progress. In return for that progress, the creator is given “for limited times” the power to control his creation and extract royalties. In 1790, Congress decided that “limited times” meant 14 years plus one renewal for a total of 28 years. There were two legislative changes between 1790 and 1909, when the copyright duration became 28 plus 28, the term in effect when Walt Disney was motivated to create Mickey Mouse.

That appeared to be sufficient incentive for fifty years to cause artists and authors to create. However since 1962, with corporate lobbying for extensions, there have been eleven more changes in law so that now corporate-held copyrights will last for 95 years.

In the view of legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional expert, recent changes in copyright law have only benefited the corporate holders of copyrights on old material. They have not benefited the creative artist, and in fact hinder creativity.

New media and new technology require changes in copyright. Lessig recognizes that the position in 1790 (when America had 174 publishers, printing presses and a law governing only maps, charts and books) is different from the position in 2004 (when anyone can be a desktop or Internet publisher, and copyright needs to encompass music, records, architecture, drama, film and computer programs). However, he feels that the changes that have been enacted have favored the corporate entertainment industry, and have actually hindered creativity, which was the constitutional intent of establishing copyright in the first place.

Lessig is the author of two important recent books regarding copyright: Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) and Free Culture (2004). In these works, he points out that checks and balances are at the center of the American concept of constitutional government, and should be at the center of American law controlling intellectual property. He condemns the extension of copyright duration by a factor of three, far exceeding what is needed to reward individual creativity, and also questions the extension of copyright protection (originally governing copies) to include control of “derivative works” in an encompassing manner not envisioned in the Constitution. Corporate lawyers now mount vigorous attacks on actions formerly considered “fair use.”

An example is in order. In a 1990 documentary about stagehands at the San Francisco Opera, a television set in the corner of the screen displayed 4.5 seconds of The Simpsons. Filmmaker Jon Else thought this would be covered under the “fair use” doctrine that allows small samples of a copyrighted work to appear in other works without permission. To be safe, he contacted Fox to obtain clearance, was initially denied permission and ultimately was quoted a licensing fee of $10,000. Else erased that 4.5 seconds of The Simpsons from the TV in his movie, eliminating an amusing touch that illustrated the backstage ambiance during the opera.

I began by describing Steamboat Willie, the work that made Mickey Mouse a star. But was it even a Walt Disney creation? Earlier in 1928 Buster Keaton released his last independent silent film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. Disney’s cartoon was a parody of the Keaton film, done without obtaining permission because everyone in that age built on previous work. Were Disney creating his product of genius today, Keaton’s lawyers would sue him, claiming this was a “derivative work” that infringed Keaton’s copyright. Beyond that, the contemporary song Steamboat Bill inspired both films. If they created these films today, both Keaton and Disney would be arguing with the corporate owners of the song about rights and royalties.

As Lessig points out, much of art is adaptive and derivative from prior works of art. If rapacious corporate legal maneuvers continue to prevent artists from building on previously published art, the ability of individual artists, composers, authors and performers to create will be impaired. The extension of the legal concept of copyright control may benefit the “information industry” with its vast reservoir of copyrighted films, music and publications, but individual creators are under attack.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #462
December 11, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009


After eight years and 423 Sunday columns, Arts Spectrum ceased appearing in print in March 2009. It continues on the web, keeping abreast of the visual and performing arts scene in Western North Carolina through weekly columns with no revenue.

The search for a sustainable financial model for serious journalism is time-consuming. Currently concentrating on support for Arts Spectrum, I am reprinting some past columns. This week's post is a lightly edited version of a column that appeared in the Hendersonville Times-News on October 14, 2001, a month after “9/11” changed both the political world and the artistic environment.

These are tough times for cultural journalists, or so says Kate Taylor in the Toronto Globe & Mail (September 27, 2001). In the aftermath of the September 11 carnage, just how important are the arts?

For most news media, the answer is “not very.” Even before these events, newspaper editors in a poll rated the arts last in importance of fifteen categories for news coverage. Many regional newspapers have eliminated dramatic and musical criticism altogether, and their cultural news consists of gossip, scandal, and box-office grosses.

Perhaps the artists and critics themselves are partly to blame for this. Deconstructionism and post-modernism may be an unintentional joke that posterity will smile on benevolently. Recent artistic theory may in fact constitute intellectual baggage that restricts spontaneity by creative artists. By the time reaction occurs, the stimulus may no longer be news. Since art appears to have lost its ability for rapid reaction, it may be an error to even consider arts reporting as “news.”

This slow reaction is not true of the human need to express suffering and mourning through iconic and poetic expression. Public art appeared soon after the September tragedy. The Baltimore Sun (September 30, 2001) reports that “the multifaceted artistic community of America’s largest city” responded swiftly with impromptu memorials. The New York Times (October 1, 2001) reports that these improvised shrines were often conceived around poems. The Chicago Tribune (September 25, 2001) discusses these shrines: “They are personal. They are peaceful. They are human. And they seem to be part of an increasingly common way of publicly mourning the dead in this country, in New York, in Oklahoma City, in Colorado, and in Chicago.”

But these outpourings were naive art by amateurs or transient spontaneous works by professional artists. In our time, high culture seems to have become retrospective in nature, and unable to react rapidly to events in the news.

Early in the twentieth century, slow reaction was not the case. The poet Wilfred Owen wrote powerful poetry regarding World War I from the trenches of Flanders before being slain. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica was a contemporary comment on the brutality of the Fascist rise to power in Spain in the 1930’s, while Berthold Brecht’s play Mother Courage told and ominously foretold the sufferings of common people in European wars. North Carolinian Randall Jarrel’s poem “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was a graphic response to the sacrifice of young life in World War II. And the abstract expressionist school of painting was based on a life-affirming post-World War II American optimism after the defeat of the authors of the Holocaust and despite the continuing threat of nuclear war.

From a report in New York Magazine (September 24, 2001) we learn that “If the consensus is correct, the arts may change dramatically… In Western society, the response of art to a change in social conditions is never uniform and rarely obvious… If there is to be a profound change in art, however, its early harbinger will be impatience - even disgust - with the broad worldview that has sustained art during the past 40 years.”

That sounds like the start of something interesting. Perhaps rapid reaction to critical contemporary events will arise again in the arts. The re-examination of American values and actions now underway may incline the artistic world to value-based gut reactions and away from clumsy deconstructionist evaluations.

© 2001, 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #461
December 4, 2009