Freedom of Speech and Art: 3 Things to Know

I think it’s a good time to reexamine the concept of Freedom of Speech. You know, that ballyhooed concept that the United States was founded on. And for all you illustrators / graphic designers / writers / photographers out there with a single political thought in your head, this would be a nice explanation. And if you have been at any of the Occupy rallies, you should know some of your simple rights. I’ll try to keep this as neutral and objective as I can.

1: You are entitled to a great right, one few countries give
The First Amendment affords you not only Freedom of Speech but Free Exercise of Religion, Freedom of Association, Freedom to Congregate, and Freedom to Lobby. Basically, outside the most vile and ugly words / images, you can do whatever you want. Famously, a young man wearing a “F**K the Draft” jacket in front of Los Angeles City Hall was protected by this right.

When it comes to protest, traditionally the government has held time / place / manner restrictions. Public parks (such as Zucchoni Park and City Hall Park) are common, accepted places for the assembly of citizens. While the government can’t express viewpoints in these public spaces, YOU can. It can be almost anything. I think this is why so much art in the streets takes place on publicly owned grounds – they are the perfect display for free expression.

2: Except when you aren’t
Ten years ago, the Patriot Act enabled all law enforcement agencies to search any document / conversation in your life in the name of defense. This includes voicemails, texts, doctors prescriptions and blog posts all the same. The FBI has already admitted to more than 1000 instancse of abuse involving the Act. If that’s not scary enough, last week the National Defense Authorization Act was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. Senate. This Act allows the military to arrest U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and hold them in military prisons without the right to legal counsel or a trial.

That’s right. Your elected representative has chosen to pass an Act that could strip you of your Constitutional rights to freedom of speech, adequate representation, and a fair trial. Glenn Greenwald hit the nail on the head, pointing to the exact provision in the Constitution that gets overturned. Even in the height of the Cold War (read: the possible nuclear extinction of the human race), the government never found it mandatory to place such an invasive ordinance. Senator Joseph McCarthy never had the guts to do such a thing because, back then, it would be un-American. Apparently it takes some nutcases with dookie and lighter fluid to make the Congress want to arrest the very people who gave them a job: the American Citizen.

3: It isn’t getting any better – so use your voice responsibly
In the face of these two acts, both of which severely infringe on your Constitutional rights, it is a prudent time to be responsible with your protest. Any police action taken against the Occupy movement specifically opposing the content of the speech is an abuse of power. A trademark of the occupy movement has been not stating goals even though most of the protesters (the ones I know range from photographers to tax attorneys) have clear objectives. The First Amendment doesn’t say you need a defined reason anyways.

There are other ways to watch what you are doing. If you want to read up on all varities of art law, you couldn’t do much better than Starving Artists Law. Or, if you are interested in learning more about the right to assemble and protest, this link is a great resource. If your voice is strongest online, it couldn’t hurt to check the Legal Guide for Bloggers.

And above all, don’t stop doing what you do best.


Alec Rojas

December 13, 2011 / By

‘Misrata’ – The Music of Change

Caravaggio painting

When Dylan sang that The Times They Are a-Changin’ in ’64, his song echoed the sentiment of the unvoiced mass public. Today, technology and the media have created plenty of new outlets for the public to voice their ideas and opinions. Now that the times are a-changed, it feels overly simplistic to picture that a song could be the best way to give a voice to an era of change.

Philip Kennedy’s post last week reminded me of a dialog that seems to permeate the conversation place, namely, the role of music in modern culture and under what lens it is to be examined. It’s no secret that there is a link between the arts and socio-political events, and with such fast access to socio-political events (remember, we live in a world where data can be transferred thousands of miles in a fraction of a second) the reactionary status of the arts is in question. The victory in Libya last week has been spun into the defeat of today and slights the drama of right now. It feels impossible to write a soundtrack fast enough.

The video above, of Sam Cooke covering Bob Dylan in the early 1960′s, displays an idealistic and confrontational tone at the same time. Dylan’s poetic touch allowed his music to transcend musical genres, race, and age groups and to solidify an idea of the populace. Then again, this populace was much smaller. Back then you HAD to buy the record to join the club, there was no YouTube/Pandora/Spotify. For Sam Cooke to perform this Woody-Guthrie-by-way-of-NYC inspired song, live for a mixed audience, with funky, soaring vocals, was a huge statement. The music could be shared by every television viewer. It was a blending of culture, a statement for the future of not just America but progressive social change.

This moment – alongside several others – was a first impression. The genesis of folk/funk/rock activist music emerged as a new group of people who weren’t sold on the status quo. The media had no way of coping. Technology restricted social awareness. There had to be protest concerts because there were no online petitions. You couldn’t donate to the cause online but you could march to your town hall. Advertising – both political and economic – had to learn to sell to this mental shift.

To some extent, the idea of being able to place musical ideas next to political or cultural ones is a product of mass marketing. Selling music as a reactionary, incendiary force is no different than any other advertising lexicon. The idea of raising passion in the heart of people has always been one of the number one ways to make money. And nowadays music as a political cause is like an old hat you don’t want to wear. We’ve seen Bob Dylan perform, Bono talking about Africa and Live8 already. Hell, we’re even giving it away. Now, the finest pieces of music that incite change have to do so in subliminal, hidden ways. There is an interpretation that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac - including the release and marketing – are desperate protests against political, advertising, and musical convention. The unrelenting ambition of the music made the music industry buckle, but did create a mental shift in us?

I think it has. As rebellion has been sold to the under-30′s crowd since before they got out of the womb (Kumbayah, Blowing in the Wind) it seems the only logical reaction has been the current wave of indifference. The safest view towards contemporary events is not accepting or even looking at it, it’s ignoring the problem completely and going down your own path, wherever that may lead you. My favorite example: The desolate, empty, vapid world of Drake’s Marvin’s Room. Accepting the solidarity of life, he realizes it is safer to accept spite, being used, using people, and inequality. It is a jaded, helpless attitude, removed from reality. It’s a first world retort to global problems. I think that’s why, several years ago, Rick Rolling was so popular. We needed something to be happy about. And joyful, cheesey, pop from 1987 was a quick fix.

Personally, I believe the most dangerous emotion in today’s society is hope. Optimism is something we are all afraid of, and I mean the optimism for the world you live in. In a world of dog-eat-dog corporations and endlessly addictive media, it takes work to cultivate actual optimism. Much in the way Soren Kierkegaard challenged our minds 150 years ago in Fear and Trembling, we must be bold in our decisions to do something good for this world. Carvaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, displayed above, reveals the challenge of Abraham to do the right thing regardless of the momentary horror of killing his son. Hope takes sacrifice, effort, and challenging yourself. It isn’t just something you are born with. You must go through with it in your actions as well.

I would like to do my part to encourage hope. Hope doesn’t just have to be happy emotion – it can create a driving light into the future. This song exists in the epicenter of a civil war. Ibn Thabit, a Libyan rapper who prefers to remain anonymous, has been releasing anti-Gaddafi music for the past year. While I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t need to in order to get this music. The beat draws itself from the g-funk, west coast era of Dr. Dre and Snoop. Released 2 months after the start of the Libyan Civil War, this is a dialog about the Battle of Misrata. Thousands of civilians were injured in the battle as Gaddafi forces leveled the city. Five days after this track appeared on Youtube, Misrata was liberated by rebel forces. This really is music of a revolution.

I warn you that the video has fairly intense images of war and violent stuff so if you just wanna listen to it, that’s cool. But if you’re interested…

In the anonymity of Ibn Thabit, this music takes on a bellowing voice to the outside world. To answer Philip’s question, I think collected voices united behind a positive idea are our only hope. We can’t rely on iconic artists other than Dylan. That revolution has been marketed. If this music can be created in the middle of war, I would only ask that we be so bold to release our art with such similar ambition. It’s a challenge. I think it’s worth it.


Alec Rojas

October 25, 2011 / By

‘What Do You Expect’ – The Music Of Change

Bob Dylan

2011 definitely feels like a time of change. From the demonstrations and protests that spread through Morocco, Egypt and Libya at the start of the year; to the riots in London and the the hundreds of global demonstrations taking place from Occupy Wall Street to the Spanish Indignants movement. Last Saturday Ann Powers of NPR’s The Record wrote an interesting piece asking “Will There Be Another Dylan?“; will there be a voice to emerge that will define this air of change and revolution?

Personally I would argue that music holds a different meaning for this generation compared with that of the ’60s. Even the way we listen to music has changed; he have easier access to it now and for many it’s become an endless way to create a backdrop to our their day. Indeed, I’m not the only one to notice this shift; Pulp’s frontman Jarvis Cocker noted the same, saying in yesterdays Guardian that “Music has changed. It’s not as central, it’s more like a scented candle”.

When Dylan sang that The Times They Are a-Changin’ in ’64, his song echoed the sentiment of the unvoiced mass public. Today, technology and the media have created plenty of new outlets for the public to voice their ideas and opinions. Now that the times are a-changed, it feels overly simplistic to picture that a song could be the best way to give a voice to an era of change.

One of the strongest voices to emerge from the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt at the start of the year was the Internet activist and computer engineer Wael Ghonim. It was Ghonim who used the term Revolution 2.0. For him, change came from the contribution of everyones voice. In his appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes, he said that Egypt’s ‘revolution is like Wikipedia’. Ghonim saw change come about from everyone contributing small bits and pieces to the cause, and thus creating a single picture of the revolution. To this generation, another Dylan is not what we need.

That’s not to say that I feel music can’t play a role in change. Music is a wonderful way to bring people together and it can connect them. One only has to look at the drumming circles taking place during many of the ongoing demonstrations to see evidence of this. For me, music today seems to work best as a backdrop to change. The voices, ideas and words of a combined people should play a far more important role then that of a single voice.

In September, Swedish indie-pop singer/songwriter Sarah Assbring (aka El Perro Del Mar) released ‘What Do You Expect’, a track borne out of the flaring riots in the UK at the time. “I felt I needed to say something about the incidents” she said, “…I feel they speak volumes not only of one society in specific but about the society and time we live in at large.” For those familiar with Assbring’s music you’ll notice that ‘What Do You Expect’ is a marked change from her usual sound. Her sweet and melancholic vocals are all but removed from this track, leaving a dark and synth-heavy backdrop for a series of sound-bites taken straight from the streets. For Assbring it would seem that the voice of the people speak more then a single voice.

How about you? Do you think we need a Bob Dylan for this generation or have we reached a place where our united voices can stand as one?


Philip Kennedy

October 17, 2011 / By

The Clipperton Project

The Clipperton Project

The Clipperton Project

Île de la Passion. A beautiful name for an island in the heart of the worlds largest ocean. Initially discovered by the pirate John Clipperton, hundreds of years ago, its romantic French name betrays the lack of habitability. An one the many barely explored islands of the Pacific, it seems to swallow people faster than the Island from Lost. Initially used as a pirate running spot, the exaggerated atoll became a “hotbed” of guano mining and was even a colony for Mexico. Yet every attempt to make the island habitable has been met by disaster or bad luck. Lacking few native plants or animals, its local life consists of little more than coconut palms, poisonous crabs, and ship rats. I think it inspired “Lord of the Flies.” Just a guess.

So when I heard about The Clipperton Project I got excited. A team of seventeen scientists, journalists, and artists will leave Mexico in Spring 2012 to set sail to Clipperton to do some soul searching. Not in a sense that they are searching for their own souls, but to reflect on our planet in a place that has rejected humanity. Each artist or scientist will spend a week on the island doing what they do best and bring the results and creations to art institutions across the world. This is a field laboratory for both art and science in the form of adventure – a forgotten concept in a world of lab coats and laptops. Jules Verne would be damn proud. To support this project, click here or simply spread the word.


Alec Rojas

August 30, 2011 / By

‘Stop Coddling the Super-Rich’, An Insightful Essay by Warren Buffett

'Stop Coddling the Super-Rich', An Insightful Essay by Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett has lived a storied life, starting out delivering newspapers, selling golfballs and stamps, and detailing cars, and no currently being the third richest person on the planet. Right now as I write this, he’s probably my favorite person on earth. Yesterday he wrote a piece for The New York Times titled Stop Coddling the Super-Rich, a poignant, amazing essay that helps me believe that there are sensible people out there. His point is simple and candid, if you make over $1 million a year, you should be taxed much more.

But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

I also love how candidly he speaks about how much he pays in taxes.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

I tip my hat to Mr. Buffett for speaking so honestly and calling upon the politicians we elected to do something worthwhile for the country. I guess we can only hope that the Dirty Dozen members of congress have the smarts to listen to him.

Click here to read the full piece over on The NY Times.


Bobby Solomon

August 15, 2011 / By