So this is my first little essay thing for this here newsletter, which I’m hoping to use as a way to force myself to compile, polish, and share my work. It’ll be a blend of stuff extracted from papers, conference talks, and research related to my dissertation on humor and authority.
As a bit of background, I am a ravenous Bob Dylan fan - sort of a millennial-era Deadhead, if you will. I’ve realized that I have also inadvertently obtained a degree in “Dylanology,” just through consuming academic, mainstream news, and social media content related to Dylan’s artistic output, specifically his work in the last twenty years or so.
What follows is an updated version of a talk I gave in the winter of 2019 at the British Society for Aesthetics conference on the “fiction/nonfiction debate” in the philosophy of documentary film. The paper itself is rather long so I’ve cut it up into three separate pieces (starting my newsletter with a trilogy, obviously). The gist of it is more of less that focusing on issues related to artistic appropriation reveals that artworks should be understood on the model of a joke, or a magic trick, rather than the model of an assertion or as a form of testimony. Crucially, I think the joke model allows us to retain the ability to criticize authors, but we do so on the basis of considerations related to trustworthiness, rather than the truth or so-called originality. Not all jokes are funny, and some magic tricks are cheap. This first piece sets up the debate regarding appropriation as a form of artistic deception and laziness focusing on Dylan’s 2011 painting exhibition, The Asia Series.
What distinguishes blameworthy plagiarism from praiseworthy appropriation?
The poet T.S. Eliot once said, in a quote erroneously attributed to Picasso that “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
This year marked the 80th birthday of American musician Bob Dylan, a year that will also include the first U.S.-based showing of his large-scale Retrospective, a warehouse-sized exhibition that spans Dylan’s entire career, both within and beyond music. Five years ago, Dylan became the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for literature, a decision that (naturally) drew both controversy and celebration. If you are even vaguely aware of Dylan’s body of work in the past twenty years or so, then you’ve surely heard complaints that Dylan’s songs, memoirs, paintings, and even his (overdue) Nobel Prize speech all contain large amounts of artistic “appropriation” - lines taken, often verbatim, from other sources (some famous and others not so famous).
Slate piece exploring Dylan’s use of lines about The Old Man and the Sea from the lazy student’s go-to online resource Spark Notes.
Appropriation is a legitimate but controversial artistic method that became an established kind in the 20th century with the legitimation of “readymade” art like that of Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal and pop artist Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Appropriation involves the use of materials taken from pre-existing works or artifacts, typically without much or any alteration. Appropriation is not unlike homage or general inter-art references and allusions, and such other-art-referencing often works best when the referenced elements are discernible and their recontextualization creates a new meaning or significance - a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the comedy Mean Girls signals something about the deeper themes of the film, for example.
Appropriation, like street art, is an ethically contentious art form because the original authors rarely consent to (or even know about) their works being used (they might be dead). If an author fails to make their appropriation discernible, then their work risks being viewed as “stealing” the original artist’s valor, so to speak. If what was first praised as an original work is revealed to consist of heavy appropriation, audiences feel as if they have been duped or betrayed. On that end, appropriation can be hard to distinguish from plagiarism, which is the deceptive presentation of someone else’s material as one’s own.
Remember this whole thing? Sorry to remind you.
We tend to view plagiarism with contempt, and judge plagiarists to be artistic liars: they have willingly deceived us about the sources of their ideas, phrases, or motifs . They are trying to take credit for what they do not deserve: someone else has been signing their aesthetic checks. Of course, not every instance of meaningful appropriation is (or should be) universally obvious, and there are no hard and fast rules for distinguishing appropriation from plagiarism, or its legal incarnation: copyright infringement. US copyright law allows for the unauthorized use of pre-existing copyrighted material when such use ‘transforms’ the meaning of the original work such that the two works are not expressing the same idea.
Weird Al’s parody song “White & Nerdy”
Parody songs are a canonical example of transformative use, as parody songs take pre-existing melodies or lyrics and recontextualize them in ways that change their content. Weird Al’s song “White & Nerdy” is a song about being a white middle-aged man in suburban America that uses the melody and lyrical structure of the song “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire featuring Krayzie Bone, which is a song about police brutality and the stereotype that black men drive around with illegal drugs in their car. Someone wouldn’t mistake “White & Nerdy” for a song about police brutality, which would qualify it as transformative and thus permissible (FWIW Weird Al always asks for consent before parodying, anyway).
Artnews article on one of Richard Prince’s copyright endeavors.
Appropriation is a common method in contemporary and conceptual art. Of course, contemporary art is often dismissed as a joke, something closer to money laundering for the rich than items that contribute to cultural production. Contemporary appropriation artist Richard Prince (who I’ve written about before, and who has written about and possibly worked with Dylan) has been sued numerous times for using other artists’ images and works without their consent or artistic modification. However, legal decisions regarding transformative use are notoriously unpredictable and inconsistent - it is difficult to define what makes a particular use transformative (and the Courts like to tell themselves they are not in the business of making aesthetic judgements, anyway). Philosopher Darren Hick wrote a whole book about the legal, philosophical, and ethical issues raised by appropriation art that I highly recommend - it contains a reference to Kevin Costner’s 1995 cinematic disaster Waterworld that establishes a substantial philosophical point and made me laugh out loud. Few philosophy books do that on purpose. Anyway, that’s just to show that even formal institutions tasked with making this decision have trouble capturing what distinguishes legitimate appropriation from deceptive plagiarism.
A typical piece by Jeff Koons.
Appropriation is a paradoxical artistic method because it acknowledges that originality is supposed to be an essential condition for artistic value through denying it. Art is valuable because it exhibits skill, time, dedication, and effort; art expresses or communicates something unique and meaningful - artistic praise may, but certainly should not, come cheap. Anything of cultural significance (worthy of being preserved, promoted, discussed, and so on) is such because it demonstrates effort and skill - but appropriation art asks, “is effort essential to art itself, or is it merely something based on our particular cultural trajectory?”
Other appropriation artists, like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, use the apparent lack of artistic creativity or expression to heighten the artificiality and sterility of the art institution and invoke a feeling of aesthetic alienation. Koons dares you to enjoy his art. FWIW - Koons has also defended (and sometimes lost) multiple copyright lawsuits. The point is that meaningful appropriation and superficial plagiarism are bedfellows, the sort of thing you can distinguish in practice but never fully explain in theory. Appropriation is, to paraphrase philosopher Richard Rorty, “what you can get away with.” Naturally, famous artists and resourceful corporate entities get away with it more often than others.
Mitchell’s two cents.
Which brings me back to Bob Dylan’s extensive use of appropriation, particularly as it has bled beyond his musical works into his written work, films, speeches, and fine art paintings. Dylan’s appropriation has clearly caused controversy and in some cases contempt from detractors and appreciators alike. Joni Mitchell famously claimed in a 2010 interview with the LA Times that Dylan, “is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” Noted “Dylanologist” Michael Grey thinks Dylan’s use of unknown images and lines lacks the cultural resonance that justifies it as artistically meaningful (something that has caused Koons to lose a copyright case).
At this point, bringing up the issue of “but is it stealing?” is beating a tired horse in the sun. But my goal in retreading this question is, hopefully, worthwhile: to change the very conditions of the discussion itself, from truth and deception to trust and betrayal, to show that Dylan is a jokester, not a liar or a thief. What distinguishes the joker from the thief is the same thing that distinguishes the liar from the magician: whether or not the audience is in on it.
Dylan has been a publicly-recognized painter since at least the 1968 release of The Band’s Music From the big Pink. Since the mid-90’s, Dylan has published variations of his “drawn blank” series, which are composed of charcoal sketches from Dylan’s life on the road in the late 80s to early 90s. In 2010, the National Gallery of Denmark displayed a wholly new side of Dylan’s artistic talents, a set of forty acrylic paintings dubbed The Brazil Series that depicted various scenes of life in “rural” Brazil, including a mountainside favela, a gardened pathway, and even policemen standing over a murdered man. Dylan is quoted as saying that he, “chose Brazil as a subject, because I have been there many times and I like the atmosphere.” A gallery spokesperson noted that the gallery didn’t know, “whether he actually saw what he painted or only saw photographs of it.” The Brazil Series was generally well received as an interesting development in Dylan’s artistic output and trajectory, though the series was not considered artistically unique or technical on its own.
A year later, the premier Gagosian Gallery in New York City hosted the first US-based exhibition of Dylan’s paintings, this time titled “The Asia Series” and originally touted as paintings based on Dylan’s “first-hand experiences” traveling through Asia and the Asian Pacific. Works in the series also depicted vivid and sordid street scenes including a cockfight, an opium den, and a close-up of rather ominous-looking but well-dressed gentlemen. Some saw it as a vanity project on Dylan’s part and a money grab for the gallery, a showing based on celebrity rather than skill. It is important to note that Richard Prince himself wrote the introductory essay for the Asia Series fine art catalog. The series caused controversy after posters on the Dylan fanzine and forum Expecting Rain (of which I have been a lurker since 2009) quickly discovered that many of the paintings were exact replicas of pre-existing photographs by well-known artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as photographs by non-famous artist Okinawa Soba (real name Rob Oechsle) who had uploaded his personal photos to the public image-hosting site Flickr.
The revelation lead to multiple newspaper and website articles and exposes asking whether the uncredited uses were tantamount to stealing. The Gagosian subsequently clarified the exhibition release to state that what was first touted as reflections of Dylan’s personal experiences was now a "visual reflection.” The Guardian claims that the series would not have been so controversial had Dylan “credited his source material.” But to think that Dylan somehow misled audiences about the sources for the paintings invites an approach to artistic creation that mimics academic scholarship - one must make one’s sources clearly and accurately apparent, lest you take credit for someone else’s (intellectual) labor and property. But, art isn’t academia, and in the artistic realm one’s reputation or standing as an artist has just as much say as one’s artistic output: it’s a symbiotic relationship.
Many people view unacknowledged appropriation as a lie, as blameworthy or contemptible intentional misdirection, a failure to “try” harder, to simply mail it in in order to secure the check. But the liar cares about not getting caught - covering up their tracks so the truth is never revealed. Appropriation, as a condition of its legitimacy, is not supposed to remain a secret, though it is also not mean to be totally obvious, either. The demand that one make their referencing apparent is a reflection of poorly-adjusted expectations, not what “really” makes something artistically valuable. The fact that Dylan used photographs for the paintings is not an issue, artistically-speaking. Using photographs, projections, mirrors, assistants, and technological aides are all well-recognized methods for artistic production.
An example of camera obscura technology.
In fact, it’s quite possible many older and admired artists like Rembrant and Vermeer also used various aides to assist the photorealistic qualities of their paintings. Like Cold Case suspects from the 70’s, these artists get away with it due to the benefit of time and technology: we do not have access to the sources of information that might tell us otherwise. In other words, the difference is epistemic, not aesthetic: nowadays we can readily discover that an artist’s use of certain images and lines is not wholly “original” - and this means it’s harder for Dylan to “get away with it” as “his own.” Further, appropriation is often most effective when its integration is seamless, like a wink or a nod rather than a bright red light declaring “Hey! Remember this from that other thing?” This is in part why throwaway “meta” references in movies like the new Space Jam feel empty and superficial - the reference should have a point, this is what makes it transformative rather than mere transposition.
As A.D. Coleman argues on his blog “Photocritic International,” there are countless academic and art historical books, essays, and dissertations analyzing the sources for great artists like Andy Warhol and Edgar Degas. In those cases, the fact that an artist drew from other sources is an opportunity for further aesthetic enrichment and investigation, not a detracting factor of aesthetic meaningfulness. Coleman points out that we do not typically condemn these artists for their copying, and I would add nor do we worry about whether the content of their works is original, either. This is because we approach these works with the right attitudes and expectations, we are not surprised to find out that they are copies and so we do not feel betrayed if and when their borrowing is revealed to us. It is our attitudes and degree of trust for an artist or author that makes the difference between appropriation and plagiarism. The problem is that trust is a matter of familiarity, and familiarity is not universal, which makes artistic appropriation more like an inside joke, where part of the value of the appropriation is the fact that not everyone will “get it.” But those that do get the joke, do so because they are equipped with the right background expectations, experiences, and attitudes.
Dylan’s highly-rated 2001 record, Love and Theft is a watershed moment in his artistic process into the current method of ubiquitous appropriation. In 2003 The Wall Street Journal published a piece suggesting that a handful of songs on the record seemed to contain lines “borrowed” from the 1989 book Confessions of a Yakuza by Japanese author Junichi Saga. The title of the album itself is the appropriation of Eric Lott’s 1993 book Love and Theft: Blackface, Minstrelsy, and the American Working Class, which traces the history of the appropriation of black culture by white Americans through the institutionalization of blackface and minstrel performances, specifically as forms of public entertainment. Lott argues that the appropriation of black culture functioned as a mechanism for racial identification and white supremacy. Performative blackface “stole” elements of black culture as a form of racial domination, realized through exaggerated performances of blackness, aimed at amusement and entertainment for predominantly white, middle-class men. Laughing at distorted stereotypes of black men was a way for the white audiences to forge their moral and social superiority, thus providing them a psychological outlet and serving as the basis of a class identity. Is Dylan’s use of the title of Lott’s book an acknowledgement that he has also borrowed elements from African-American cultural traditions like the blues, donning a musical blackface as a way to distinguish himself as a young, working-class white folk singer, as a form of entertainment? It is clearly a nod to his self-awareness that appropriation has a long-standing and contentious relationship to African-American folk traditions, something that I will discuss in more detail in my next essay on the relationship between appropriation and the blues.
Dylan’s membership in the folk tradition aside, shouldn’t it have been rather obvious that the world-famous singer Bob Dylan was not hanging out at underground cockfights or in picturesque opium dens? As it turned out, Dylan did seek permission for his use of the professional photos, though he did not do so for the original images that were not publicly familiar, like Soba’s. Soba was not interested in pursuing legal charges, though he objected to Dylan’s use as “stealing” and “lazy” and would have preferred Dylan’s explicit acknowledgement.
Dylan has continued to release exhibitions of his appropriation paintings, moving from photographs to stills from well-known films like Paris, Texas, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Most of the scenes, like his Drawn Blank series, depict an Americana bucolic atmosphere, cars, old drive-in movie theaters, fluorescent signs, 50’s diners…stuff like that. My point being, it is clear Dylan was and is not aiming to deceive anyone about the origin of the scenes depicted in the works, whether or not the paintings themselves have any redeeming aesthetic qualities.
Comparison of a painting from Dylan’s 2021 The Beaten Path series with its source material, a scene from the film Paris, Texas.
The controversies raised by Dylan’s appropriation are based in an outdated model of aesthetic evaluation, one derived from a view of art as a reflection of the artist’s beliefs or feelings. If we think that artist’s are praiseworthy because their work is honest, that it is true or in some way expresses what they “really” think or feel, then the revelation that their words or images come from someone else causes us to feel betrayed or upset. We have mapped the dichotomy of “appropriation or plagiarism” onto the model of “testimony or lie.” But, lies are always blameworthy and not all forms of misdirection or appropriation strike us as blameworthy or aesthetically offensive. I might deceive you about what we’re doing Tuesday night because I am planning a surprise for you, I assume that, if you knew, you would accept the deception given its purpose, because it is for your benefit. The “lie model” of appropriation limits our ability to engage with art works as they are, to reconsider the point of the work or gesture before approaching its content. Appropriation reveals that it matters what we think an artwork is doing, rather than merely what it’s “saying.”
On that end, we should approach art, and appropriation, on the model of a joke rather than an assertion.
When we joke, we are not treated as if we are using words to reflect what we “really” believe or think is true - as testimony to our deepest thoughts and desires (although it’s not clear jokes are not wholly independent from those things, either). If I tell you that my sister’s dinner party is so boring that I am considering slitting my wrists, the fact that you do not immediately remove the knives from the table and call 911 means you interpret what I am saying to be a joke, you recognize that I do not really mean what I am saying - the point of my utterance is to bond with you over the implicit mutual recognition that: “this party blows.” On that end, jokes resemble lies in many important respects, but jokes are in fact closer to magic tricks: jokes involve a form of willful misdirection on behalf of the audience in order to present a distorted picture of reality (or an accurate picture of reality’s natural distortions), that aims to acknowledge something true, or at least something familiar and so funny. Of course, not everyone finds a given joke funny, nor should they.
Tune in next week where I’ll explore in more detail the connections between jokes and lies, before arguing that the joke-model suggests that appropriation is a matter of trust rather than originality or truth.