Beg, Steal and Borrow: Artists Against Originality
Laurence King Publishing
One of the more interesting takes from the 2018 Justin Timberlake Super Bowl Halftime performance was the result not of the carefully calculated re-appropriation of his down home backwoods flannel shirt-wearing persona (read: white.) It was not even his brazen presumption that the late and legendary performer Prince would have approved his video image being displayed during a somber duet of "I Would Die 4 U" (read: black.) The more twisted and crass take came from one of the commercials during the actual game, in which Dodge Ram Trucks appropriated a section of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's anti-capitalist speech "The Drum Major Instinct" as a way to sell its product. Timberlake's transgressions and pandering to the hometown Minneapolis crowd could be dismissed, but Dodge Ram's exploitation of King's words as a way to hop on the Black History Month bandwagon would take longer to understand and absorb into the public wavelength.
Whether it came from a 37-year-old former boy band member trying to maintain his own sense of credibility, or a huge capitalist entity backed by the money and power of advertising geniuses, the message was clear: re-contextualizing, appropriation, a new version of the same message through art is as alive today as it has been for millennia. The struggle to solidify identity with artistic integrity has been a running theme through all artistic forms. It's perhaps more immediately understood with melodic strains in pop music, passages of literature sometimes lifted directly or poorly adapted, and inspirational political speeches that have an uncomfortably high degree of DNA in common. In his wonderfully cheeky, colorful, informed new volume Beg, Steal, and Borrow: Artists Against Originality, writer Robert Shore offers a clear-headed and rich history of the ways in which creations (primarily visual and fine art here) have always danced between the lines of "immaculately conceived" works and the skills behind minimally re-positioning material from others so as to create maximum artistic effect.
The best way to approach such a difficult and controversial topic is to ask questions. In Chapter 1, Shore asks "How Original Are You?" He refers to the artist Elaine Sturtevant (known primarily by her last name), whose work in the mid-'60s "…begged to be mistaken variously for the plaster sculptures of George Segal and the stripe paintings of Frank Stella." She drew inspiration from Roy Lichtenstein, who himself made his name from appropriating the style and presence of comic art. As Shore puts it, "…one of the points of Sturtevant's work was to put the very word -- 'original' -- in inverted commas." The world, as a result, is simply a cycle of copies, a circle with no beginning or conclusion. The fact that William Shakespeare's work has been appropriated and re-purposed for so many years in so many ways proves not only its genius and accessibility but also its unoriginality. This is not to minimize its value so much as place it in context. Seeing a page from Plutarch (1579) side-by-side with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1623) demonstrates just how much the latter owed to the former. Shakespeare knew the strength of the field he wanted to plow. The seeds he planted came from the same sources as his predecessors. He just grew more eternal crops.
Stare inward, and the very fact of "being" can suggest that we are all guilty of appropriation. "The self -- the thing that makes me so uniquely me and you so uniquely you -- is entirely borrowed," Shore writes. He brings in such provocateur artists as Marcel Duchamp (the mass-manufactured urinal) and Richard Prince (re-purposing Marlboro cigarette ads.) Christian Marclay's looped video, Clock, was a 24-hour production that took re-purposing to its end result, collecting clips of time displays in real time. Lou Reed claimed he assumed pieces of other people's personalities, a pattern practiced by Andy Warhol as well. Nothing was sacred and nobody was safe. In Chapter 2, "Thou Shalt Not Steal", we learn about replications from as far back as 1503-1504. The German artist Albrecht Dürer originates, Marcantonio Raimondi duplicates. There was the Engraving and Copying Act of 1735, meant to protect product, and then there was printing itself, which -- according to media age superstar prophet of the '60s Marshall McCluhan -- was the innovation that did away with anonymity. It's all about timing, not the product itself. If you can draw from sources many generations before you were born, you might be able to get away with it.
The notion of "Mickey Mouse Laws" also comes into play here. This act, known officially as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, increased the length of copyright in the United States to 'life plus 70'. Corporate bodies are allowed 90 years. Is this enabling a culture of corporate welfare? Works still in copyright become less accessible through means of creative commons, and a situation arises where immediate and equal access to knowledge, enlightenment, and the power that comes from these elements in a life are imbalanced. It's this inequity in the protections afforded products of commerce and art that makes it difficult to see a clear path towards compromising.
In Chapter 3, "…But You Will Be Taught to Copy", Shore reflects that he has been spending a lot of time referencing his friend Jonathan, getting his ideas on the topic. "Should he have a share of the copyright?" Shore asks and answers like so: "Copying doesn't apply to ideas as such, only to their fixed expression. I did the typing, I get the credit." It's this light-hearted tone through pieces of Beg, Steal, and Borrow that makes for fun through some complex ideas. "Michaelangelo's own originality was of an avowedly imitative kind," Shore notes. He takes us through Manet's bold Le De'jeuneur sur l'herbe a depiction of a nude woman at a picnic of clothed men, and how it was based on a lost Raphael painting. For Shore, "…copying is the foundation stone of art-making, and the impulse to copy the art of other artists is the progressive motor of art history." That seems to be the bottom line here and it's effectively argued. The Romantics were about individualism, the essence of singularity. Was everything else a reaction to that? Duchamp plays into the story again, with his appropriation of DaVinci's The Mona Lisa, and the argument is again reinforced. Quantity is the new quality. Failure to produce and make a name for yourself within or beyond available inspiration material comes at your own risk. You have been warned.
Chapter 4, "A Brave New Multi-Authored World", concludes that the digital age is the sharing age. Our concern should not be about the efficacy of appropriation so much as understanding that those who appropriate must do so to creative ends. Take the open source culture of blues and jazz musicians, how each artist in their respective form has built upon the work of the one who came before. (The oral tradition of folk music as well, not mentioned here, is worth considering.) Take the rather spurious world of fan fiction, which Shore does mention, and we need to conclude something rather unfortunate. He quotes Owen G. Parry:
"'Fan fiction goes beyond parody… It's much more complex. Fandom happens within commercial culture… It goes right to the heart of that commercial thing [fans]… create their own fantasies out of what is marketed to them…"
It would be hard to argue, for instance, the literary merits of such fan fiction authors as E.L.James, whose Fifty Shades trilogy originated as fan fiction tributes to Twilight, but that's not the point of this chapter and certainly not Shore's mission. In Beg, Steal, and Borrow the idea is to tie the ends together, to collect the strands of thought that have brought us to this point. In Chapter 5, "Gene the Art Genie", Shore brings us to Dafen, China, a peasant village that hosts the highest density of artists in the world. It's mass-marketed duplications of fine art oil painting suitable for hotels, Wal-Mart shelves, and rest homes, where copies of Van Gogh's Sunflowers sell for $7. In the section "Seven Types of Continuity", Shore details how forms have persevered and maintained: remixing, erasing, globalizing, defacing, resuscitating, re-visioning, and adopting. There are carefully detailed separations between all these forms, and Shore's mission here is to both give them their own legitimacy as artistic expressions and tie them into one intricate piece of rope. It's among the more intriguing and successfully rendered parts of this book.
By Chapter 6, "Remake, Reuse, Reassemble, Recombine: That's the Way to Go", Shore concludes by noting how art "…has become one big stylistic mash-up, then, an orgy of copying and collaging beyond the logic of time and place…" It's hard to dispute this assessment, and it's difficult to pass judgement on whether or not this is a destructive condition for art as a form, an ideology, a source of inspiration. Nothing ends. "© has given way to @." In a final note that is equal parts cheeky and appropriate, Shore provides acknowledgements and "Borrowings". He explains:
"As is only appropriate in a book on appropriating and copying, every word and thought in this text has been borrowed from someone else…"
This is followed by careful credits, in two columns per page, chapter-by-chapter, offering the inspiration and source material for the contained ideas. How we feel about these end notes will be measured by how we feel about originality. Is it real? Is Justin Timberlake a crass manipulator of image rather than an artist in creative transition? Should Dodge Ram Trucks be ashamed of itself for presuming MLK would have endorsed its product? In a life where our public images need to be represented long after our deaths, the trespasses done by commerce on the integrity of a slain civil rights leader are hard to forgive. Beg, Steal, and Borrow (packaged to look like a classic Penguin Book but in fact it's an Elephant book) is a fascinating testament to the many ways we remember, create, and pay forward our visions to the next generation.