I was excited when I heard of Shia Labeouf’s goofy self-serving performance art amateur hour, because when news of his egregious plagiarism broke, I fantasized about sitting him down and explaining why what he’d done was so wrong. I frequently indulged this fantasy, in fact. More than I want to admit. And now I had my chance to live-out the fantasy! I already knew what I wanted to say to him.
So after leaving the WGA library this afternoon I drove by the art gallery where his installation was taking place. Reports yesterday suggested lines were only six or ten people long. When I drove by I saw about eighty people, a line stretched around the block. I feel like the longer the line, the more the event self-serves Labeof. I suspect the more people he sees, the less impact each additional person is able to have on his psyche.
So I passed. But I know what I would have done if I’d gone in. I’d have sat in front of Shia Labeouf and this is what I’d say:
“I’m showing you my face. Can I see yours?”
At this point, Shia would remove his bag-mask. I would hope so, because I don’t want him to rationalize that I would only say what I have to say because of a luxury of anonymity, be it on Twitter or because of a dumb paper bag. I’m pretty certain he always takes off the bag-mask when asked during the installation.
“So listen, man, here’s the thing. After you got caught plagiarizing, your response was to provoke a discussion about art, the meaning of art, and the ownership of ideas. I get it. ‘An artist is someone who points at something and says look at this.’ And I’m sure as an actor, you make it your business to collect and save all sorts of things like newspaper articles, movies, photos, sound recordings… anything you can have to draw-on, combine, and obsorb into what you do when you create a character to perform in a play or film. Your job, as an actor, is to point at stuff and tell people to look at it. To create a living, breathing, truthful character from the stuff of the world. Easy to understand.
“But your response to getting caught plagiarizing misses the mark. Completely.
“Because the crime of plagiarism isn’t idea theft. You can’t copyright an idea or expression of an idea anyway. The crime of plagiarism is theft of labor. You didn’t appropriate a creative thing for your own creative thing, you stole someone else’s labor.
“Writing might sometimes be a performance, but it is always craftsmanship. A written work might sometimes resemble an art installation, but it is always akin to building a kitchen cabinet. Writers are laborers. Their labor, their time, has a value. And it is so often stolen in this town.
“In fact, if I write a screenplay and sell it to you, your contract won’t be about purchasing my existing screenplay. The contract for purchased screenplays is almost always a ‘work for hire’ contract. It’s a labor contract! Look, if you built a garage on your property with your own bare hands, and I airlifted it with helicopters, dropped it on my property, and repainted the trim, you would not say to me ‘Goddammit, your garage so closely resembles mine that I am wronged!’ No, you would say, ‘Goddammit, I built that garage with my bare hands and you had no right to take it.’
“Appropriation art might have artistic merit, but it almost always involves the powerful appropriating from the weak. There is nothing punk rock or avant garde about what you did, appropriating other people’s labor. Performance art might have artistic merit, but there is nothing punk rock or avant garde about what you’re doing. It can never be sincere. Real men are sincere.
“I hope you’ve listened to me. It would be a good thing if you could use your celebrity and platform to stand-up for the writers everywhere, especially the ones who wrote the films that subsidize your ability to do art installations like this one, and pay respects to their labor without glibness or an esoteric comment about art. When the provocative discussion about art is over, I hope you sincerely make a real apology to Daniel Clowes for stealing his labor.
“Also, I really enjoy the Transformers movies. You shouldn’t be embarrassed by those at all. They’re fun and make me feel like a kid again when I watch them.”