Art is theft – Pablo Picasso

I want to just cut and paste the article It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.‘ by Kenneth Goldsmith. I know that the author would have no problem with it, but the Chronicle of Higher Education might. I will, however, repurpose it to fit my needs. Kenneth Goldsmith would surely give me an ‘A.’

I will start by summing things up with a quote from an entirely different article:

From Carol Kino’s interview with sculptor Tony Cragg in the Art Economist (no story link – you have to subscribe to read the piece):

Tony CraggTony Cragg: Duchamp did a very valuable and important thing in introducing manmade objects into the world of art. That provided us with an enormous vocabulary of new materials but, more importantly, it made us realize that we do not have to change the object if we can change the terms around it. That made the world into two different kinds of specifies, with every object having two facets, one being its physical qualities, and the other being its metaphysical qualities. It’s not the soup can on the shelf, but the the soup can we all have in our  heads.

So when you’re asking how does a sculptor change the world, that’s what we’re doing. Whether you change the material or not, you’re changing things in your head. You give people new forms and suddenly they see the world differently.

Tony DoIn 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s idea.

It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in art: With an unprecedented amount of available material, our problem is not needing to make more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my art from yours.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Please insert the appropriate form of ‘art’ in place of ‘writing’ in the above paragraph.

Far from this “uncreative” art being a nihilistic, begrudging acceptance—or even an outright rejection—of a presumed “technological enslavement,” it is art imbued with celebration, ablaze with enthusiasm for the future, embracing this moment as one pregnant with possibility. This joy is evident in the artwork itself, in which there are moments of unanticipated beauty—some formal, others structural, many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as art, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on artisticness, to name just a few. And then there’s emotion: yes, emotion. But far from being coercive or persuasive, this artwork delivers emotion obliquely and unpredictably, with sentiments expressed as a result of the artistic process rather than by the artist’s intention.

Sol Lewitt Five Modular StructureThese artists function more like programmers than traditional artists, taking Sol Lewitt’s dictum to heart: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” and raising new possibilities of what making art can be. The poet Craig Dworkin posits:

What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with “spontaneous overflow” supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.

There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, it would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.

Nam June Paik magnet tvIf we look back at the history of video art—the last time mainstream technology collided with art practices—we find several precedents for such gestures. One that stands out is Nam June Paik’s 1965 “Magnet TV,” in which the artist placed a large horseshoe magnet atop a black-and-white television, eloquently turning a space previously reserved for Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan into loopy, organic abstractions. The gesture questioned the one-way flow of information. In Paik’s version of TV, you could control what you saw: Spin the magnet, and the image changes with it. Until that point, television’s mission was as a delivery vehicle for entertainment and clear communication. Yet an artist’s simple gesture upended television in ways of which both users and producers were unaware, opening up entirely new vocabularies for the medium while deconstructing myths of power, politics, and distribution that were embedded—but hitherto invisible—in the technology. The cut-and-paste function in computing is being exploited by writers just as Paik’s magnet was for TV.

Francis PicabiaNearly a century ago, the art world put to rest conventional notions of originality and replication with the gestures of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, Francis Picabia’s mechanical drawings, and Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Since then, a parade of blue-chip artists from Andy Warhol to Matthew Barney have taken these ideas to new levels, resulting in terribly complex notions of identity, media, and culture. These, of course, have become part of mainstream art-world discourse, to the point where counterreactions based on sincerity and representation have emerged.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as repurposing we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

Despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

Clearly, not everyone agrees.

If everything can be repurposed and then presented as art, then what makes one work better than another? If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, where does it end? Once we begin to accept all language as poetry by mere reframing, don’t we risk throwing any semblance of judgment and quality out the window? What happens to notions of artist? How are careers and canons established, and, subsequently, how are they to be evaluated? Are we simply re-enacting the death of the artist, a figure that such theories failed to kill the first time around? Will all art in the future be nameless, made by machines for machines? Is the future of art reducible to mere code?

If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, then what becomes important is what you—the artist—decide to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and—more important—what to leave out. If anything can be transformed into art by merely reframing—an exciting possibility—then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best.

The moment we throw judgment and quality out the window, we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all words may be created equal, the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication don’t eradicate artistry; rather, they simply place new demands on artists, who must take these new conditions into account as part of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: If you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online, or out there at all.

In the words of yet another artist: Steal like an artist.


Read Kenneth Goldsmith’s article,  It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’ in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Check out Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist at the Economist’s Human Potential Summit

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