The One and Only Original, 2nd ed.

Seven hundred pages of research and note-taking later, I was floored by déjà vu.  As George Santayana’s epigram scolds, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (qtd. in The Culture of the Copy 271).  The repetition was this:  I wrote on the relative merits of originality and duplication in art almost exactly one year ago.

Even so, there is no danger here of self-plagiarism.  A year of research [1] and studio practice [2] altered my opinions on the topic of repetition in art.  Before, I defended originality and uniqueness.  Years of creating oil paintings sensitized me to sneaky aspects of their content such as scale, historical context, and surface texture.  This fall I extend that attention and advocacy to shades of meaning more easily expressed by twinning than uniqueness.

Appropriated styles or symbols are powerful triggers for historical revisionism.  The paradox of the doppelgänger (that eerie or delightful duality of simultaneous likeness and contrast) parallels history’s relationship to the present day.  History is not a linear progression that can be infallibly interpreted, and not even with mountains of data.  Danto’s disquisition against seeing the past as a historical teleology is compelling, thorough, and ironically titled After the End of Art.  History is also not a circle, and not even the most ardent historicism or literalist interpretation of Santayana can replicate the past.  Thus, knowing the past is not a definitive guide to the future.

If history is neither a line nor a circle, then perhaps it is a spiral.  This paradigm accommodates the universal experience of déjà vu.  As Schwartz reminds us in his exhaustive discourse on twinning, “Doubleness has become an inescapable element of modernity; yea, for some, its very definition” (87).   To echo Bernard of Chartres (and Isaac Newton):  “We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so we perceive more things than they do” (qtd. in Universe of Stone 103).  We define ourselves in relation to past events, traditions, and fashions, even as we retain free will.

Context art echoes the past without duplicating it.  It ironically comments on art in museums to add a layer of recursion to the artworks themselves.  This encourages viewers to reconsider the authority of museums, the validity of canon, and the relevance of art.  Gallery talk performances (or “analytical interventions”) such as Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) or Jaysson Muyson’s Grand Manner (at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) define this artistic subgenre (Bourdieu xiv).  Repetition and revisitation are fundamental to conceptual artworks such as these.

These performances also challenge assumptions about originality.  Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay on the aura of art correlates uniqueness with originality, but Schwartz counters that notion with the much-quoted idea that “Originality is not the urge to be different from others, to produce the brand new; it is to grasp (in the etymological sense) the original, the roots of both ourselves and things” (qtd. on 247).  Schwartz further contradicts Benjamin by stating that “What we intend by ‘Original’ these days is that which speaks to us in an unmediated way, an experience we seem to believe we have lost between ourselves, human to human” (141).  While Muysson’s and Fraser’s performances apply this idea to other artists’ work, the concept also relates to artists who appropriate elements into their own creations.

To this latter line of reasoning belongs the long pedagogical tradition of creating work “in the style of” someone else as an homage and learning tool.  Raymond Dufayel, a character in the 2001 French film Amélie, incessantly copies Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.  His closet of laborious Renoir duplicates seems risible, but it is none too extreme an exaggeration of the osmotic practice approach used by students and established artists to acquire skills or inspiration.

Original art could be art which causes a viewer or artist to think something original (as opposed to defining original art as having no historical precedent).  As Schwartz phrases it,  “Plagiarism in our culture of the copy is sticky with feelings of originality-through-repetition, revelation-through-simulation” (314).  Or, as Alexandre Dumas put it:  “The man of genius does not steal; he conquers…and what he conquers, he annexes to his empire” (qtd. on 311).  Appropriation art is a quintessential example of learning through practice.

Russell Connor’s Masters in Pieces, or painted pastiches of art history, provide contemporary examples of how amanuensis can become art.  As the artist states on his website, “Copying one famous painting may be helpful study, but boring.  If you marry two, things happen.”  Connor literally marries portions of masterpieces to create his own content.  It is through the alteration of the past (via manipulation of its symbols’ context) that we invoke and comment upon it.

There is a range of how closely or lightly an artwork quotes other art.  Rob Matthews’s Word Made Flesh Made Graphite or Knoxville Girl series hint at passion plays and depictions of saints in western European art, but his figures wear contemporary clothing and his medium echoes photography more strongly than the traditional oil or tempera paints of icons.  The historical connection in the Word series is a subtle but effective one formed by the centrality of his artworks’ compositions, the suggestive title, the figures’ thousand-yard stares, and the symbolic objects they hold.  Like Francisco Zurbarán’s seventeenth-century paintings of saints, the dramatically lit figures seem unaccountably serene in their isolation.  Instead of using contemporary pastiche to reinterpret history, Matthews uses history to reinterpret the present.

In the classic essay “Self-Reliance,” which passionately discourages quotation or imitation, Emerson points out that “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts:  they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty” (259).  The predominant options for artistically acknowledging this alienated majesty are the subtle hint, the outrageousness of outright pastiche, or the intangibility of context art.  Duplication and quotation strengthens art’s capacity to emphasize the commonalities and the differences between points in time, place, or perspective.  Its power of unification is unavailable to original and less well-connected artworks.

[1] I may not quote all of them, but reading books like Simulacra and Simulation, Surveiller et Punir, The Culture of the Copy, After the End of Art, and The Society of the Spectacle force you to rethink the preciousness of singular objects.  The maligned seven hundred pages only refers to books read after proposing my aptly redundant topic.

[2] My studio emphasis remained original oil paintings, but I felt driven to experiment with:  paper automata, woodblock prints, anachronistic hinged frames, mail art, rule-based art, clay coins, wax seals, a surveillance-focused project, photographic source material, and appropriation.

Works Cited

Ball, Phillip.  Universe of Stone.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  e-book.

Connor, Russell.  Russell Connor, Artist:  Masters in Pieces. Web. 8 October 2013.

Danto, Arthur C.  After the End of Art:  Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self-Reliance.”  Emerson:  Essays & Poems. Library of America College Editions. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 259-282.  Print.

Fraser, Andrea.  Museum Highlights:  A Gallery Talk. 1989.  Performance.  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Web.  July 2013.

—.  Bourdieu, Pierre. “Forward: Revolution and Revelation.” Museum Highlights:  The Writings of Andrea Fraser.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Matthews, Rob.  Portfolio.  Web. 8 October 2013.

Muyson, Jaysson.  Hennessy Youngman & Nathaniel Snerpus Present:  The Grand Manner. 2011.  Audio tour.  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia.  Web.  July 2013.

Schwartz, Hillel.  The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles.  New York:  Zone Books, 1996. Print.

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