In Writing, Art, And Music, Everybody Steals

The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes, it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger.
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My new book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is awash in conscious, self-conscious, conspicuous appropriation. I and many other contemporary writers, musicians, visual artists, and copyleft lawyers are trying to think in new and different and (we believe) exciting ways about quotation, citation, appropriation, and plagiarism. We're trying to regain the freedoms that writers for millennia took for granted but that we have lost. As I say in a preface to the appendix (I wanted to publish the book without any citations, but I wound up needing to do so, to comply with Random House's legal obligations), "I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism, but being told it can't be published because it might harm the publishing industry." The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes, it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger. I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time--feed off one another's work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new.

Art is a conversation between and among artists, not a patent office.

Reality can't be copyrighted.

William Gibson: Who owns the words? We all do, though not all of us know it yet.

And once we all did: artists have plundered one another since the beginning of time; copyright has existed only during the last 60 years.

In digital culture, it's especially important for us to be able to sample, remix, mash-up materials available to us at the click of a button, but the law has a stranglehold on literature, perhaps because both literature and the law are verbal.

The mimetic function has been replaced by manipulation of the original.

Examples from the history of Western civilization, most ancient to most recent:

Roman sculptors' direct copies of Greek sculptures.

John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (1991), which is painstakingly researched and shows in great detail how the New Testament is a mash-up of epic proportions. The Gospels are pretty much collages of many ancient texts, with the older ones being borrowed from and rewritten in the newer ones. The New Testament that people read today is a composite of numerous sources, and in many cases, such as the Gospel of Mark, one ancient writer wrote over the top of a previous one, tacking the whole rising-from the-dead ending onto a previous document that ended without any such miracle.

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (circa 1603-1607); the description of Cleopatra on her royal barge is a near verbatim sample from Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony (75 A.D.). (Eliot used this passage in The Waste Land.) Shakespeare "plundered" Arthur Brooke's The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562) for his play of (nearly) the same name. Two thirds of Henry VI (1591) is directly derived from Holinshed's Chronicles (1577).

Goethe: People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.

Thomas Jefferson's miracle-skeptical remix of the Bible (1820), keeping only the social teachings.

Emerson: Genius borrows nobly.

Manet's Olympia (1863) is a reworking of Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538).

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (1880) hijacks the French national anthem (1792).

Josh Billings: About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.

Igor Stravinsky's music.

Ezra Pound's "creative translation" Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919) has done more than any other book to keep alive the poetry of Propertius. Some criticized Pound's "errors," while others understood that Pound was playing cover versions of the Roman poet and taking liberties as he saw fit. Also see: J.P Sullivan, Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: A Study in Creative Translation (1964).

T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), in which Eliot discusses his theories on influence and borrowing. The Waste Land (1922), of course, is made almost entirely of literary samples, references and conspicuous assimilations--fragments to shore against his ruins.

Eliot: Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

Picasso: All art is theft.

James Joyce: I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.

Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project (1927-1940) (incomplete at the time of his death--endlessly being completed by us, after him).

Henry Darger's paintings.

Francis Bacon's paintings.

Joseph Cornell's film Rose Hobart (1936)

Muddy Waters "stealing" from Robert Johnson.

Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring (1944) steals from the Shaker melody "Simple Gifts" (1848).

Nabokov's Lolita (1955) is based on Heinz von Lichberg's Lolita (1916; see Michael Maar's The Two Lolitas (2005).

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959).

Martin Luther King Jr.'s s sermons (accused of plagiarism, as was his PhD thesis; relevance of accusations? Nil.)

Eduardo Paolozzi's collage-novel Kex (1966), cobbled from crime novels and newspaper clippings.

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), getting it wrong.

The deconstructions of King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry (early 1970s). Using primitive, pre-digital gear, these guys created new "versions" of previously recorded music. Their techniques are the basis on which hip hop was built.

Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (1977), specifically the essay "Death of the Author," in which Barthes says, "A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author." He also says, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing."

William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (1977): a collection showcasing and theorizing about the cut-up technique.

William Burroughs Reader, ed. John Calder (1982); Brion Gysin's "Cut-Ups: A Project for Disastrous Success" discusses the process that he and Burroughs pioneered. Also in Burroughs Reader: interview with Burroughs in the Paris Review in which he discusses the cut-up method.

Kathy Acker, after Burroughs.

Péter Esterházy's Helping Verbs of the Heart (1985).

Daniel Johnston's music.

Graham Rawle 's novel Diary of an Amateur Photographer (1998), its text harvested from photography magazines.

Kevin J.H. Dettmar, "The Illusion of Modernist Allusion and the Politics of Postmodern Plagiarism" (1999).

Danger Mouse's The Grey Album (2004).

Paul Miller, Rhythm Science (2004).

William Gibson, "God's Little Toys" (2005)

Bob Dylan's use of Henry Timrod and everybody else.

Joanna Demers, Steal This Music (2006).

Girl Talk's Night Ripper (2006).

Copyright Criminals (2009), directed by Benjamin Franzen.

Flarf poetry: a poetry constructed from random juxtapositions created by Google searches. See: "Flarf is Dionysus. Conceptual Writing is Apollo"(2009), by Kenneth Goldsmith, in Poetry Magazine.

Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010).

Stefan Sonvilla-Weiss, Mashup Cultures (2010)

Thanks to James Nugent for his research assistance.

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