Yesterday, I put up a short piece about the Shia LeBeouf art installation, and I mentioned that I was planning to stop by and check it out myself.
Evidently, I was not alone.
When I arrived today at the Cohen Gallery, the line was around the block and deep into the alley behind the gallery. I was told that it was taking at least two hours to get around to the front, with part of the problem being that there was no time limit that people were being held to once they stepped inside.
I spent about ten minutes chatting with people around me, asking why they were there and what they expected from the encounter, and it became obvious very quickly that no one really had a plan. They were there because they’d read about it, but no one really knew what they were going to say or do inside. Speaking to a few people as they walked out, it felt to me like they were almost sorry they’d participated, but not for the reasons you might expect.
It’s one thing to read “Shia LaBeouf is wearing a paper bag on his head and sitting in a gallery and facing people one at a time,” but it’s another thing entirely to walk into a small room and sit down across from a real person. LaBeouf has made a spectacle of himself over the last few weeks, and people have speculated about whether he’s treating it as a goof or if he’s having genuine problems with coping with this level of scrutiny, and in the end… none of it matters.
The only part of this that is truly the business of the media is the plagiarism that kicked all of this off. I think there are several reasons that charges of plagiarism have become more and more common and more and more high profile is because technology has allowed for a level of crowd-sourcing we’ve never seen before, and we’ve also raised an entire generation of people who have no real respect for the notion of copyright or intellectual property.
When you grow up with Napster and BitTorrent and the enormous ease that exists now to get anything you want simply by pushing a few buttons, it’s hard to learn that something as ephemeral as a song or a book belongs to someone. It is a pretty short jump from that to seeing no real issue with taking things from others and incorporating them into your own work. If there is no ownership of ideas, then what does it matter if you cut and paste something into your own work?
Personally, I think Shia’s behavior is starting to get sad, and the reports that multiple people wrote yesterday about him sitting across from them and crying sure didn’t make me feel any better about what he’s going through. I genuinely don’t think he had any idea his work would come back to bite him in the ass, and I think when it happened, he made a choice to lean into it, to embrace what had happened and try to make a statement about how he thinks art works. After all, Quentin Tarantino’s famous for repeatedly using the Godard quote about how “great artists steal,” and people love Quentin Tarantino, so why should Shia be any different, right? There’s a huge difference, though, between throwing all of your influences into a blender and bringing out something that is yours that is a reaction to the things that turn you on and simply cutting and pasting dialogue.
About fifteen minutes after I arrived at the gallery, I ran into /Film’s Germain Lussier, and he suggested I might want to walk around to the front to see what was happening. It turned out to be perfect timing, too, since the gallery next door to the Cohen Gallery was preparing to open its doors. If you’d like to see what happened, you should check out the video embedded at the top of this story.
When I finished with my encounter with Jerry O’Connell, I had to sign a release form, and I suspect you’ll see highlights from the event on Funny Or Die sometime in the very near future. I’m sure they’ll find some great bits and pieces from a full afternoon of doing it, but honestly… even though it was meant as a joke, I think the idea that someone was doing the exact same thing as Shia a mere 40 feet away from where he was doing at the exact same time that he was doing it may have made the point more directly than Shia could ever hope to do, even if he was actually talking. The second installation is pretty much exactly the same as the first one, right down to picking up implements from the table outside and carrying one into the room. And sure enough, when I sat down across from O’Connell, my first thought was, “Well, this is a real person, so now what do I say?”
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters if Shia’s crazy or if he’s trying to make a point about the ownership or art or if he just thinks that if he makes enough noise, you’ll eventually forget about what kicked all of this off in the first place. Just like with the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow stuff that people are spending so much time and energy debating right now, nothing I say or think matters about this topic. LaBeouf only really owes one person an apology for his short film, and that’s Daniel Clowes. Beyond that, this is all just a big weird metatextual distraction. I’m glad things timed out the way they did today, and I’m curious to see the O’Connell piece once it’s done. For now, though, I think this has played out to its inevitable dead end.