I am still heady from reading “Reality Hunger,” David Shield’s feisty literary “manifesto” built almost entirely of quotations from other writers and thinkers. His book can be taken as Exhibit A in what he calls “recombinant” or appropriation art.
And though publishing-house lawyers required him to include an appendix listing his sources (at least those he could remember) Mr. Shields asks the reader to honor the spirit of the book by taking a pair of scissors and giving it an appendectomy.
(Like his book, this article uses appropriated material. My personal ethic requires me to list the referenced works, at the end of the piece.)
His manifesto prompted the quick drawing of battle lines, coming at a time when tensions have probably never been higher between a growing culture of borrowing and appropriation on one side and, on the other, copyright advocates and those who fear a steady erosion of creative protections.
But Mr. Shields argues that blatant borrowing has been a foundation of culture since man first took up pen and paintbrush, long before Terence complained in the second century B.C. that “there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.” (Mr. Shields’s point about borrowing has certainly been made many times before, a fact he readily acknowledges.) Appropriation has breathed life into music, art and theater, he argues, and he lines up a kind of murderers’ row of writers, including Sterne, Emerson, Eliot and Joyce (“I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man”) to make the case that it has been an important tradition in writing, too.
Read familiar? Of course pageantry is nothing if not appropriation: of itself and of just about every other artistic and design medium imaginable.
“Why can’t literature catch up with the other arts?” Shields asks. “Who owns the words?” Mr. Shields asks in a passage that is itself an unacknowledged reworking of remarks by the cyberpunk author William Gibson.
“Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do — all of us — though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.”
You could argue, of course, that Warhol’s use of a soup can or Danger Mouse’s use of the Beatles and Jay-Z on the Grey Album represent one thing, a re-contextualizing of cultural artifacts so well known they are a kind of shorthand. But does lifting from an obscure blogger — or even importing a description of a sunset by Steinbeck or a suburban tableau from Updike — accomplish the same thing?
“So much of the energy of great work to me is feeling the echo effect on every line, of not knowing where it came from,” he said, citing a quote — this one attributed — from Graham Greene that he uses as one of the book’s epigraphs: “When we are not sure we are alive.”
However impossible it is to think of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” or “Jersey Shore” as art, reality shows have taken over wide swaths of television, and memoir writing has become a rite of passage for actors, politicians and celebrities of every ilk. At the same time our cultural landscape is brimming over with parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages and others forms of “appropriation art” — much of it facilitated by new technology that makes remixing, and cutting-and-pasting easy enough for a child.
It’s no longer just hip-hop sampling that rules in youth culture, but also jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys” and “Rock of Ages,” and works like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which features characters drawn from a host of classic adventures. Fan fiction and fan edits are thriving, as are karaoke contests, video games like Guitar Hero, and YouTube mash-ups of music and movie, television and visual images.
These recyclings and post-modern experiments run the gamut in quality. Some, like Zachary Mason’s “Lost Books of the Odyssey,” are beautifully rendered works of art in their own right. Some, like J. J. Abram’s 2009 “Star Trek” film and Amy Heckerling’s 1995 “Clueless” (based on Jane Austen’s “Emma”) are inspired reinventions of classics. Some fan-made videos are extremely clever and inventive, and some, like a 3-D video version of Picasso’s “Guernica” posted on YouTube, are intriguing works that raise important and unsettling questions about art and appropriation.
All too often, however, the recycling and cut-and-paste esthetic has resulted in tired imitations; cheap, lazy re-dos; or works of “appropriation” designed to generate controversy like Mr. Shields’s “Reality Hunger.” Lady Gaga is third-generation Madonna; many jukebox or tribute musicals like “Good Vibrations” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” do an embarrassing disservice to the artists who inspired them; and the rote remaking of old television shows into films (from “The Brady Bunch” to “Charlie’s Angels” to “Get Smart”), not to mention the recycling of video games into movies (like “Tomb Raider” and “Resident Evil”) often seem as pointless as they are now predictable.
Maybe that’s (the) reason for the flurry of attention recently about a teenage German novelist, Helene Hegemann, whose book about Berlin’s club scene was named a finalist for a prestigious literary prize (that was awarded this month) in Leipzig. After a blogger and fellow novelist announced that Ms. Hegemann had blended sizeable chunks of his own writing into hers, Ms. Hegemann, instead of following the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction so familiar in recent years, announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along.
A child of a media-saturated generation, she presented herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, an idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn’t shared by those from whom she borrowed. In a line that might have been stolen from Sartre (it wasn’t) she added: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Here then is Field&Floor’s 2010 Top 32 Color Guards: authentic, each one.