Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fairey comment

Is Shepard Fairey a crook? Not according to Steven Heller, who regards the Obama poster artist as a brand manager rather than a plagiarist. Backhanded compliment, that, for the artist who created "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'"

Still, it's an interesting question: when does artistic appropriation pass into plagiarism? The visual arts have accepted collage since when, Braque and Picasso? Nouveau Réalisme reversed the process with décollage but the form still depended on appropriating somebody else's work. Van Gogh compared his ransacking of Millet to musical interpretation. "If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn't have to be the only one to perform his compositions," he wrote. 

Music itself has a rich history of sampling. Think of Tchaikovsky and the French and Russian anthems he appropriated in the 1812 Overture. The Gregorian melody "Dies Irae" has been sampled by, in alphabetical order, Alkan, Bloch, Berlioz, Crumb, Daugherty, Dallapiccola, Galás, Grantham, Gounod, Haydn, Holst, Honegger, Liszt, Mahler, Myaskovsky, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich, Sondheim, Sorabji and, yes, Ysaÿe, in addition to Tchaikovsky. Fast forward and appreciate Danger Mouse and marvel at Girl Talk. The canny Philip Glass actually invited Beck to remix his works. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em.

In literature, plagiarism is a mark of excellence by T.S. Eliot's lights: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," he wrote. Where would Chaucer, Shakespeare and Sterne have been without Boccaccio, Holinshed and Rabelais? Coleridge was a literary kleptomaniac, with whole passages of the Biographia lifted from Schelling. The teenage Dylan Thomas
learned to versify by plagiarizing Edith Bunker's favorite poet, Edgar GuestPlots and themes and archetypes have always been up for grabs, else genre studies wouldn't be very rewarding. And when Samuel Beckett and Brian Moore were "putting their stories together, working out the details, mixing memory and desire, they had no qualms, no problems about appropriating what they pleased," according to Colm Toibin, writing from his own experience and recalling that Beckett once used a letter from a dead cousin and Moore appropriated his own father for a novel. "They used what they needed; they changed what they used. Their soft hearts became stony," Toibin explained with a tincture of self-justification. But this is small beer next to the plagio con brio by Mostly Other People Do the Killing: a twofer appropration of Miles Davis and Jorge Luis Borges.

My own sense is that appropriation isn't plagiarism so long as the source is acknowledged and what's appropriated doesn't represent the sum and substance of the original work. I'd say that it's comparable to "fair use" in copyright law except that copyright law is incoherent when it comes to poetry. In general copyright law is a wretched legal muddle and an all-around contentious subject these days, often honored in the breach by news aggregation sites that like to call themselves "curators"; by online photo galleries mounted with other people's photos; by tabloid gossip columnists who retail uncredited snippets from press releases about boldface names (they know who they are); by self-appropriating journalists who offer their old work as new; by respected newspapers made desperate by a business model unable to adapt to the times; by op-ed writers who aren't actually the writers; by overextended pundits who recast the writing of historians; by code-copying computer-science students; and, alas, by an insouciant songwriter and Nobelist otherwise acclaimed as the genuine article. In general, social media have notoriously rewritten fair use practices. 

Fairey failed to acknowledge his source; indeed, he lied about it. It's said that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Hmmm. I wonder if Malcolm Gladwell would offer Fairey the same sympathy he extended to Bryony Lavery, who plagiarized him. Sympathy was certainly not Christian Ward's desert when Sandra Beasley pilloried the serial plagiarist in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. 

Nevermind. Our concepts of ownership and originality may need reexamination. How can you plagiarize what is, after all, a cultural artifact, meaning it's produced by the culture--isn't it also "owned" by the culture? What individual can claim sole ownership of any intellectual property?

Or what corporation? It's hard to swallow how Disney has claimed ownership of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Song of the South, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book, "a legacy of cultural sampling that Shakespeare, or De La Soul, could get behind," as Jonathan Lethem put it, plagiarizing verbatim from Lawrence Lessig. (Lethem/Lessig may be calling on the wrong witness: Kipling himself admitted to plagiarizing parts of "The Law of the Jungle.")

And how can any work be "original"? Innovation has a dialectical relationship to what already exists. You cannot think of an innovation without thinking of what it differs from. It's representational art that gives abstract art its context and often its meaning. Try thinking of Jackson Pollock without thinking of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton, whose nativist realism was, for Pollock, "something against which to react very strongly," a vivid instance in which this dialectic plays out as Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence.

Originality is the notion that justifies Pollock's art as something more than large-scale doodling. To a postmodernist critic, this notion seems "ridiculous when you are staring at a Warhol Brillo box, a Lichtenstein comic strip, or a Jenny Holzer text." But it's in the self-interest of art institutions, galleries and people who pay big bucks for Pollocks to insist on originality as an aesthetic principle. Except when it's not. Ripoff artist Glenn Brown was nominated for a Turner Prize in 2000 and the Turner Prize jury's chairman, Nicholas Serota, justified the artist’s oeuvre thus: “He uses other artists’ work, but that doesn't mean to say you could possibly mistake his work for theirs . . . he takes the image, he transforms it, he gives it a completely different scale.” Which means he takes somebody's magazine illustration and enlarges it to hang in a gallery. 

Assessing the compilations of photographs assembled from the Internet by Penelope Umbrico, Eric Oglander, Joachim Schmid, Dina Kelberman and Erik Kessels, photography critic Teju Cole asserts that "The real trouble is rarely about whether something counts as art—if the question comes up, the answer is almost always yes—but whether the art in question is startling, moving or productively discomfiting." But which of these seemingly arbitrary criteria came into play when MoMA enshrined Elaine Sturtevant's copycat art in a career-affirming retrospective

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said the German novelist Helene Hegemann, who seems to have come of age artistically as well as generationally on the Internet. Edgar Allan Poe might have taken issue with Hegemann. The "broad assertion that no such thing as plagiarism exists," he wrote, "is a sotticism." German politicians, however, may find her words exculpatory, and ditto their American counterparts. And if Hegemann can't sustain a career as a novelist she could always review winesforge letters, work for the National Security Council, sit on the Supreme Court, run for French or American president (or at least First Lady). There are many ways to monetize plagiarism. Consider: works by the Pictures Generation fetch millions. In the 1980s Sherrie Levine made a career as an "appropriation artist" rephotographing Walker Evans photographs. Today the Sherrie Levines are legion on the Internet and plagiarists run sites designed for millennials, who apparently couldn't care less.

So it's unsurprising that on American college campuses the notion of originality simply doesn't hold the same meaning for students as it might for their teachers, even at the graduate level, where 80 percent of dissertations evidence plagiarism. I suspect this variance between teacher and student may vanish in a generation. Well, sooner at Penn, where Kenneth Goldsmith teaches a class on "Uncreative Writing," in which "students are penalized for  showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing." It should be noted that Goldsmith is merely recognizing reality. Again, if you can't lick 'em, join 'em. 

Is this so big a deal? Not if a distinguished educator can persuasively explain plagiarism as a breach of decorum, not morality, and compare it to a violation of the rules of golf. Who doesn't take a mulligan now and again? 

As Obama might have said, the arc of the universe bends toward poetic justice, and Shepard Fairey's poster has become a visual meme, plagiarized by political cartoonists and activists the world over.

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