Rand Paul’s Reality Hunger: An Appropriation Art Response to a Politician’s Plagiarism

What do senator Rand Paul and artist Richard Prince have in common? Last week, addressing multiple accusations of what journalists characterize as plagiarism in his articles and speeches, Rand Paul told the press:

What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers. We’re going to try to put out footnotes. We’re going to have them available. If people want to request the footnoted version, we’re going to have it available.

As a coda to his embarrassing spectacle, Paul’s statement is unwittingly loaded with implications about moral and immoral fair use and intellectual property in the digital age. Rand Paul would support appropriation art. At least, in principle.

Malboro cigarette pack; Richard Prince’s “Cowboy Series”

The first instance of plagiarism was noticed in Paul’s column calling to rein in America’s psychotically mismanaged “War on Drugs.” A Libertarian figure-head in Republican drag, Paul wants the DEA abolished. He doesn’t go as far as dad Ron Paul suggesting legalization of heroin, but he believes that the War on Drugs infringes personal freedoms and ruins lives. He believes it’s a foolhardy crusade with no end and few results. Most importantly, he believes it’s a waste of money and when you’re dealing with conservatives, wasting money is the most abominable sin.

In his Op-Ed, Rand Paul dropped an anecdote about a regular Joe (here named John) just tryin to get by. You see, there was a man, a man named John, who just needed to feed his kids, and things just weren’t working out for John so he decided to sell some painkillers for a little extra scratch. Despite his transgression being minor, John was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Paul’s punchline gets to every decent, red-blooded American:

John will be 72 years old by the time he is released, and his three young children will have grown up without him.

That’s a succinct way to humanize a statistic! (John’s life has officially passed him by, a life sacrificed for his children, children whose formative years he’s missed. Sad.) The problem? Some guy in some other newspaper reported this story a week earlier:

He will be 72 by the time he is released, and his three young children will have grown up without him.

That is some guy’s sentence that Rand Paul used! But Rand said “John” instead of “he.” 2 points for dramatic reassertion of personhood and individuality! John is a man and he has a name dammit.

Paul is such a tremendous jackass that certain media outlets quickly seized the chance to comb through his previous speeches and articles to find many other instances where this happened, the most absurd being Paul’s speech about eugenics in which he plagiarized the Wikipedia entry for Gattaca.

The Wikipedia entry reads:

In ‘the not-too-distant future,’ liberal eugenics is common, and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class.

Rand Paul said :

…In the not too distant future – eugenics is common. And DNA plays a primary role in determining your social class.

In defense of plagiarizing some guy describing the plot of a movie on Wikipedia, Paul said, “Uhh, I don’t know, I don’t write what I say. People send it to my phone 10 minutes before I say it.” Basically. Actually, he said this:

“…the unattributed passages… were the result of life at the speed of a newly minted national political figure, and that the article had been adapted from a speech, which was one of the reasons it was not vetted.” He added, “Things are done quickly and in a hurry, and sometimes I get some things sent to me while giving a speech — I’m looking down at my phone saying ‘read this for approval in 20 minutes’, we write something every week for The Washington Times, and I literally am riding around in a car in between things trying to figure out if I can approve it.”

In today’s fast-paced world, fact checking, crediting sources and writing your own speeches seems impossible. That would mean fewer junkets and appointments, less time with the kids, etc. Hell, the quote above isn’t even the quote! I jammed together one of his quotes with a summary from The New York Times. By some guy. (Looking stuff up is boring.)

Supreme; Married to the MOB; Barbara Kruger

Rand Paul is an asshole. He’s doesn’t recognize women’s rights to their own bodies, wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, voted against hurricane Sandy relief, and is a member of the racist John Birch Society.

None of that makes the War on Drugs less absurd or John the circumstantial drug dealer’s predicament less sad. It was not a special sentence – just a fact and some minor narrative manipulation, but to insure against all plagiarism claims, mere paraphrasing would not be enough. Paul would have to have to have said:

Dan Stewart, an editor at The Week magazine, recently wrote a piece about John. In a sad coda to an already unfortunate story Dan wrote, ‘He will be 72 by the time he is released, and his three young children will have grown up without him.’

It’s as if a pesky watermark is hovering over John’s face, derailing our emotional investment. And more words to read! We just sacrificed the simple sloganeering and the anecdotal sentimentality necessary for political punditry, for the sake of his journalistic integrity. Of course, a journalist would have actually done research, but Paul is as much a journalist as he is a “board certified doctor.”

Morton Beebe; Robert Rauschenberg; ArtValue.com

Rand Paul is right. Mandatory minimum sentencing for minor crimes is one of the dumbest failings of the US justice system. No case should be considered a blanket offense. But let’s focus on plagiarism because it’s funny. War on what now?

Storytelling relies on tone and narrative tension and release. Nothing kills tension like breaks for names. Like all politicians, Paul is a natural storyteller. He wants you to know how he fears genetic eugenics, its potential violations of freedom/etc like the possibility of genetically engineered advantages. Some people are naturally inclined to do certain tasks better than others! Some people (star pitchers) can throw a 100mph fastball! Some people (politicians) are masters of manipulation, skillfully plucking and rearranging minute pieces from the real world around them to fit their dramatic narrative mission.

Rand Paul’s contribution is selection. Like John Baldessari.

John Baldessari’s “Pointing Pieces”

But Rand Paul is a pundit and not an artist. He’s also not a journalist, so he’s not obligated to author original work.

Art’s only obligation is to deliver the subjectivity of interpretation, which is why “fair use” of copyrighted material is legally (subjectively) determined on whether the work is “transformative” of its material source. Rand Paul, however, does not have the right to recontextualize other people’s work into his propagandist pastiche.

AP; Shepard Fairey

Kenneth Goldsmith, MOMA’s poet in residence, has some radical thoughts on textual appropriation.

‘It seems there are no new ideas left in the world; only new arrangements of things.’ I once saw this written on the wall of a gallery, but according to the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, I don’t need to admit so much, let alone put the thing in quotes… He writes, ‘an updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.’

That’s Maggie Mull quoting Kenneth Goldsmith in an essay on Blackclock.org. (Quotations have been added and font been changed from Georgia to Times New Roman.)

Does font choice effect our interpretation of the text?

Does seem to be as important as ?

When a pundit appropriates the work of someone who disagrees with them ethically, it is immoral. When DJ Premier sampled Chuck D’s vocals on a Notorious B.I.G. song Chuck D thought glorified drug dealing, it was expensive. But an appropriation artist is actually required to twist the source material — in intent, in font, in general — until it satisfies the legal “transformative” “fair use” criteria.

This is where the fair use laws are failing. Imagine if a programmer was required to twist the intent of his programming language every time they wanted to use a piece of previously developed code. It would be counterintuitive madness and prevent any of the technical innovations that allow Rand Paul to get his un-vetted speeches texted to him and thus look like a colossal moron.

Like programming, art relies on the development of language and common signifiers. Appropriation is considered legally risky and discourages artists from using it as a tool, creating a blind spot of progress. We’ll never know just how many ideas haven’t come to fruition.

Ellsworth Kelly’s proposal for Ground Zero

Paul’s footnotes-upon-request plan is possibly a very nice solution for the legal clusterfuck that is fair use, or in the case that someone wanted to know what he was talking about.

Perhaps to avoid legal headaches, artists should release annotated, footnoted copies of their work upon request. They would still need to testify and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their art is “art.” As it stands, fair use cases are judged by non-experts who decide whether the appropriation art work is “good art” and whether their kid could have painted that.

David Shields, “Reality Hunger” treatise on appropriation, comprised of appropriated texts and footnotes

Libertarianism, in theory, strongly favors minimal government and individuals responsibilities over their actions. Through his own laughable oversight and lack of personal responsibility Paul became an appropriation case study. He even gave us a nice hypothetical solution for fair use — the brave and selfless contribution to the Arts, the fruit of his loins. Since his pain has been our gain, maybe art can help him have a better understanding of himself.

Appropriation art is the most reliant on other people of all art forms. It demonstrates methods in which we can achieve more as a group and influence each other in unexpected ways.

Walker Evans; Sherrie Levine; Machael Mandiberg

Maybe Paul believes we need to work together and help each other to develop ideas (or speeches), to turn a phrase while making a point and to build projects that are too much for one man. Maybe Rand Paul doesn’t want to be “left the hell alone.” Maybe Rand Paul is actually a Socialist.

More likely, he’s just a Bullshit Artist.

1. Actually, this was not the first case.
2. This was.
3. Paul’s actual opening line: “In the movie Gattaca – in the not too distant future…”
4. The New York Times revised the story and removed this quote before I could save it. It’s salvaged from a truncated reblog at Talking Points Memo.
5. No one is going to do this. Maybe a handful of journalists. People do not read footnotes.