Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The lightness of being original

Sometime ago, someone wrote me a message questioning why I write about politics in the Philippines when I am in Canada. He criticized me for writing about things I haven’t experienced. According to him, I’m just regurgitating information from the Internet or Google. Essentially, what he meant was that I got all of it from reading. In other words, I didn’t have any existential experience of what was happening. So, to him, I wasn’t being “original,” that I have no authority to tell the truth when I haven’t experienced it firsthand.
Originality. Photo courtesy of The Art Bunny. Click image to view
"Xerox Girl's Ass,"
Normally, I would have just dismissed this letter as a nuisance, for it was totally bereft of anything redeemable. It was something not worth spending my time on. The message, on its face, was clearly nonsensical and nobody in his or her right sense could see any value in pursuing it. Balderdash.

The aforementioned person came short of coercing to stop me from stealing other people’s ideas. “Stop,” he could be saying. “You’re just a hack.”

But on second thought, unknowingly the person could be waxing philosophically. He could be posing an important and relevant question: What is originality, and does it really matter nowadays?

The cultural critic and writer Lewis Hyde wrote in his latest book that anyone who comes up with a totally new idea—something completely out of thin air—will not likely become a productive artist and lot more likely to be seen as a total loon.

Everyone, and every artist, builds on what came before. On ideas he or she has read somewhere, from a novel or poem or from an artwork hanging in a museum. Or from conversations overheard on the street, on the subway or in a café.

If nothing is original, all the great minds and artists, Ben Franklin, William Shakespeare, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Elvis Presley, Madonna, or Lady Gaga—are all thieves.

Historians who have written stories of nations, upheavals and other great events are mere jokers because they only rely on written records, diaries, photographs and other relics from the past.
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, The Broken Column, 1944. Collection of Dolores Olmedo,
Mexico City. Photo courtesy of petrus.agricola. Click image to view "Sketch Sessions:
Three Artists Draw Mia (Seated Nude),"
If we simply accept that “there is nothing new under the sun,” there will never be room for imagination, invention or innovation. Recycling old ideas or putting old content in new ways would be disparaged and discouraged as outright plagiarism. It would be an end to experimentation.

If there is no originality, there would seem no reason to buy or experience “new” works—a book or a painting—because there would be no such things. It’s better and wiser to save our money and simply avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.

When asked about originality, Jim Jarmusch, an American film director and a major proponent of independent cinema, offered these comments:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photos, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery‚ celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”

In The Limits of Interpretation (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco speaks of the “protected meaning” of a text, which at the minimum Eco says is what the text “cannot” mean. This is a recurring problem in today’s advanced state of information technology. As the aforementioned person who wrote that message earlier said that his 11-year old grandson can exactly replicate what I’m doing simply by Googling. What he meant was that it is easier to copy and paste articles and text from websites on the Internet. That would be easy if one is not interpreting, something a minor child no matter how gifted, may find difficult especially when there are issues in the philosophy of language involved or perhaps the need to deconstruct the language used.

In the realm of art, copying is almost always allowed. In law, plagiarism, for instance, is neither a crime nor a civil wrong. But that should not give you the reason to rip off your favourite painting and throw it out in the garbage. That’s not necessarily right.

Robert Lands, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, wrote: “Plagiarism may be a taboo in academia, but in art some might say it is almost essential.” If you have the legal recourse in suing for infringement of a copyright, that is not the same as an action against plagiarism. Plagiarism can involve taking an idea, whereas copyright is not concerned with ideas. Ideas, after all, are not copyrightable. If someone is merely copying another’s style or the notion behind an illustration, it is unlikely a copyright infringement.

The influence of those who came before is evident in practically every piece of art. Works of art are largely repetitions of tradition, and it is extremely difficult to provide a rigorous and precise distinction between practices like imitation, stylistic copying, retelling, rewriting, or even forgery. As the playwright Wilson Mizner said, “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.”

All this talk about originality must be taken in context. While content scraping is very easy to do nowadays by copying and pasting from websites and blogs from the Internet, credit must be given to those who present their own painstaking and independent viewpoint. Copying without acknowledging the source must be discouraged or ridiculed, yes, but not at the expense of holding back the progress of ideas and artistic trends.

As Anna Chin-Williams said, “If I plagiarize, it's only because I like someone else’s idea better than mine and I want credit for it.” But that should stop at admiration, the better way still is to make (forge is the operative word) something new from old forms or ideas.

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