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September 6, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

I’m a writer: Don’t trust me with other people’s secrets

If you're confessing to something and Russell Smith is sitting at the next table, it's best to bite your tongue.

Where else are we going to get our stories, if not from what we overhear? What else is art about but the real? The question is a persistent one; it comes up in every creative writing class. Something incredible happened to my cousin, someone will say, but if I use it, no matter how I alter it, even if I take it simply as the kernel of a story that blooms into something much larger and symbolic, my cousin will read it and she will get mad. She will feel exploited and betrayed, and most likely ridiculed as well. I don’t want to do it, but wow, it’s such a good story! And it would so neatly illustrate my ideas about colonialism and the environment ...
posted by philip-random (53 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief, they all kill their inspiration, and sing about their grief...
posted by kmz at 9:53 AM on September 6, 2012 [17 favorites]


I'm a bank robber. Don't trust me around money. Depositors will feel robbed and penniless, and most likely will go bankrupt as well. I don't want to do it, but wow, it's so much money! And it would so neatly illustrate my ideas about capitalism and the banking industry ...
posted by 3.2.3 at 10:01 AM on September 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


Where else are we going to get our stories, if not from what we overhear? What else is art about but the real?

I recommend a resource called Sesame Street, which has segments devoted to explaining a phenomenon called "imagination."
posted by darksasami at 10:03 AM on September 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


Hmm interesting, but it sounds like a very easy argument, and has its own easy counterargument in the first comment on the site, 1-0 in the first minute really: This idea that fiction is really just autobiography or reporting anyway is a convenient one for mediocre writers who don't have the skill to invent or transform their material, and rely mainly on readers' voyeurism for sales. Frankly this smug column reads like a sleazy sales pitch for Russell ("I trash real people in my books!")

I don't know, maybe this sort of approach would apply more to personal blogging or writing lifestyle columns on a magazine than actual fiction? or even just ordinary life of most people...
There are a lot of interesting personal stories each of us comes across in confidential manner even if we're not writers and don't work in some helpline, and the temptation to pass them on even anonymously can be strong and risky.

I don't think if you're a writer with a bigger talent and ambition than just us ordinary gossipers would run into that kind of dilemma, you'd start from a bigger idea than just a story you overheard, or, maybe you'd use a story they overheard as inspiration, or a detail you observed, but rework it into a bigger idea... and take some other bits here and there and reinvent and rewrite so much it would be its own thing. At least, that's what the average good writers I can think of actually seem to be doing. Or maybe I'm just idealistic.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:03 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite line to people who ask me 'where do you get your ideas?' is 'I think them up'.

I stole it, naturally.
posted by unSane at 10:11 AM on September 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


A writer is always selling someone out. - Joan Didion
posted by Egg Shen at 10:16 AM on September 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't think if you're a writer with a bigger talent and ambition than just us ordinary gossipers would run into that kind of dilemma, you'd start from a bigger idea than just a story you overheard, or, maybe you'd use a story they overheard as inspiration, or a detail you observed, but rework it into a bigger idea... and take some other bits here and there and reinvent and rewrite so much it would be its own thing. At least, that's what the average good writers I can think of actually seem to be doing.

Not too long ago I heard Colm Tóibín (who recently wrote an essay on a related subject) give a talk in which he said he had written a story that, if published, would almost certainly lead to two of his friends getting divorced. The story dealt with the secret gay life the husband had led before the marriage. The character's "real identity" would be unmistakable.

Tóibín said (paraphrasing) "I'm going to publish this story, of course. If that bothers you, you should not become a writer. There are plenty of other things to do."

Colm Tóibín may or may not be your idea of a good writer. I've only read one of his books, and I thought it was pretty excellent.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 10:31 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tóibín said (paraphrasing) "I'm going to publish this story, of course. If that bothers you, you should not become a writer. There are plenty of other things to do."

Perhaps what he meant was "If that bothers you, you should not befriend a writer; if it's too late, you should never tell them anything private."
posted by jeather at 10:34 AM on September 6, 2012


I name characters after people I know and warn them a) that I am likely to kill the character off in a horrible way, b) it's not a reflection of my personal feelings for them, I'm just really bad at character names.
posted by jscalzi at 10:34 AM on September 6, 2012 [21 favorites]


it's not a reflection of my personal feelings for them, I'm just really bad at character names.

you could easily get around this by naming every character Steve

i'm just saying is all
posted by mightygodking at 10:37 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


jscalzi, you should just auction off the opportunity to have a character named after someone who bids, and if they bid more, their character gets to get killed off in a really spectacular way! I would pay some amount of money for that. But if you'd do it for free, let me know and I'll memail you my name. (Really enjoyed Redshirts, btw, so thanks! Keep on keepin' on.)
posted by rtha at 10:40 AM on September 6, 2012


Just make everybody vampires. If people complain you can say it's not about them because they are not a vampire.
posted by The Whelk at 10:40 AM on September 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


jscalzi: you're welcome to use my name if you like.

- Buster McFart
posted by brain_drain at 10:48 AM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just make everybody vampires. If people complain you can say it's not about them because they are not a vampire.

Or give them a very small penis.
posted by cazoo at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's dead easy to get character names, just look around you... that's how I got the hero of my latest, Pen McCoffemug
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:57 AM on September 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


for character names, a nice walk through the local cemetery never fails for me. Though I always choose first + last from separate markers ...
posted by philip-random at 11:00 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be an honor to be killed by proxy in one of your books, jscalzi.
posted by Mister_A at 11:09 AM on September 6, 2012


I used to name the female lead in all my draft video scripts Samantha for a while. Because I <3 Bewitched and because I need to spend like 3 hours with a phone book (remember those, kiddies?) before I come up with a plausibly implausible name. Now I just give them descriptive handles til I figure out what to call 'em.
posted by Mister_A at 11:13 AM on September 6, 2012


I've been told to protect yourself by changing the gender of the real-life person you're using.

Ethically, I think it's dodgy to write something that may hurt an individual, but i think if a thing works as fiction, and has a real fictional point of view, it's not a failure of imagination. Sometimes I read a book, usually a piece of literary fiction, that feels like a total failure, and I often suspect it's because the writer leaned too heavily on real-life people and events and did not get enough artistic leverage on the material. Conversely I read a lot of fiction where I know there is a real-life story behind it but it works as fiction. Joyce Carol Oates has written both kinds of books-- and everything in between-- in my opinion. Her books based on the John Benet Ramsey case and Chappaquiddick were abysmal, I thought, but I have loved some of her books based on (or inspried by) real-life material at all levels.
posted by BibiRose at 11:17 AM on September 6, 2012


I order my ideas in bulk from a factory in the States. Unfortunately the premises are sold in six packs and the climaxes are packed in fives. Very frustrating.
posted by dobbs at 11:27 AM on September 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


Tóibín said (paraphrasing) "I'm going to publish this story, of course. If that bothers you, you should not become a writer. There are plenty of other things to do."

Perhaps what he meant was "If that bothers you, you should not befriend a writer; if it's too late, you should never tell them anything private."
posted by jeather at 12:34 PM on September 6


Or maybe he meant to say "I don't have the courage to wait patiently until my characters come up and lead me into the dance of where they would go. And I certainly don't care about how my selfish actions destroy the lives of others. In short, I'm a low, vile, disgusting scumbag, a worthless piece of human garbage." Maybe that's what he meant to say.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:43 AM on September 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


"sometimes I bring a notebook around my friends"

And sometimes those friends wind up punching you.
posted by stormpooper at 11:49 AM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


>Where else are we going to get our stories, if not from what we overhear? What else is art about but the real?

I recommend a resource called Sesame Street, which has segments devoted to explaining a phenomenon called "imagination."


I guess it's something of a hobby of mine to take sarcastic jabs that are supposed to gain power from their gross obviousness, and show how they are WRONG WRONG WRONG. This is one of those cases.

Where does your imagination come from? Guess what: unlike what a bunch of Star Trek episodes may have told you, the mind of man is not infinite. The field of things that we can imagine is infinite, but we can't address directly into that space, we have to build off of previous ideas.

Nothing you or anyone else has ever thought came from nothing. The first people got theirs from observing nature; everything since has built from the same source or atop prior observations. We're all stealing, constantly, every moment of our lives; it's just that some do a better job of hiding it from others. Even if you don't recognize where you got an idea from, there's still a source there; if the source is yourself, then that source must have a source, and somewhere back along the chain everything came from outside. There's an arbitrary line we've drawn in that sand, and the land beyond it we call plagiarism. A useful line it is, but it is arbitrary.

What we call originality is simply the novel conjoining of other ideas, either yours or others. That is not infinite, but its combinatorial vastness is such that it looks infinite to us, and every time we create a new idea the space's size increases in a factorial manner. Most of those resulting ideas are not really interesting; the writer effectively mines that space, using algorithms of varying effectiveness, looking for the rare good ones.

We only have access to that space based on the things we know and observe ourselves, so when our search strategy intersects with our address space in a way that produces a story it is not something to be thrown away unnecessarily.
posted by JHarris at 12:07 PM on September 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


The sign above my desk: GOOD ARTISTS BORROW. GREAT ARTISTS STEAL.
posted by Rykey at 12:08 PM on September 6, 2012


VISIONARY ARTISTS ARE SMART FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
posted by The Whelk at 12:11 PM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have this one embedded on page one of the draft of the novel I'm working on:

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, 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." – Jim Jarmusch
posted by Ber at 12:12 PM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where does your imagination come from? Guess what: unlike what a bunch of Star Trek episodes may have told you, the mind of man is not infinite. The field of things that we can imagine is infinite, but we can't address directly into that space, we have to build off of previous ideas.

Totally true, and totally not what the author is saying. It's made very clear in the article that the point is "everything is real life with decorative details changed." That's an outright denial of what you've said, which is that people can expand outside the body of human experience by starting with that experience and synthesizing.
posted by darksasami at 12:23 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or maybe he meant to say "I don't have the courage to wait patiently until my characters come up and lead me into the dance of where they would go. And I certainly don't care about how my selfish actions destroy the lives of others. In short, I'm a low, vile, disgusting scumbag, a worthless piece of human garbage." Maybe that's what he meant to say.

Yeah, that was probably it.

Anyway, his point wasn't "if you want good stories, go rummaging through your friends' dirty laundry," but rather "if you're a serious writer and you have an idea for a story, no matter where that idea comes from, you'll write it in the way you think makes it work best as a story, no matter what." Malraux said that "what makes the artist is that in his youth he was more deeply moved by his visual experience of works of art than by that of the things they represent"; maybe a corollary would be that what makes a writer is that s/he cares more about fictional people than about real ones.

From Tóibín's essay:
Within a few months of marrying, Thomas Mann wrote a story suggesting that his wife had had an incestuous relationship with her twin brother. Samuel Beckett, in his first book of stories, used a letter from a dead cousin, thus causing offense to her family. Brian Moore’s father, who was a doctor, worked tirelessly during the bombing of Belfast in 1941; in his novel “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Moore has the father, who is clearly based on his own father, fleeing Belfast for the safety of Dublin during the air raids.

No one suggests that Mann or Beckett or Moore was an especially bad person. Indeed, all three were known for their courtesy and much loved by those close to them and by readers. But when it came to the moment when they were putting their stories together, working out the details, mixing memory and desire, they had no qualms, no problems about appropriating what they pleased. They used what they needed; they changed what they used. Their soft hearts became stony.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 12:26 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally true, and totally not what the author is saying.

Maybe, but it does respond to the snarky early comment, which was my point.

Since the ultimate source of ideas is observation of nature, you could say that we are saying the same thing. But really we're talking from different contexts; his, that if the artist trying to figure out how to describe meaningful reality, mine, that of a dabbling computer guy thinking about what ideas are made of. From each of our contexts, what we respectively say are true, so the disagreement must come from our perspectives. His seeks to say real things about our world, and figures the best way to do that is to pluck fragments of life from the world and preserve them on the page, changing the context to change their meaning; mine considers a story about two housewives talking about past infidelity as roughly the same thing as an epic battle between pirate robots and ninja monkeys.
posted by JHarris at 12:43 PM on September 6, 2012


mine considers a story about two housewives talking about past infidelity as roughly the same thing as an epic battle between pirate robots and ninja monkeys.

I'd pick up a novel about past infidelity called PIRATE ROBOTS + NINJA MONKEYS.
posted by philip-random at 1:01 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you write about your friends you need to be good at making new friends easy because you lose the ones you write about and if you don't make new ones you might soon not have any.
posted by bukvich at 1:06 PM on September 6, 2012


"if you're a serious writer and you have an idea for a story, no matter where that idea comes from, you'll write it in the way you think makes it work best as a story, no matter what"

No, thats "if you're a serious writer and a sociopath".

You can be a serious artist and also have compassion and empathy for people.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:19 PM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ok then nevermind, I don't know how to explain what I don't like about the idea. Maybe it has nothing to do with being a good writer as such. You could write a very good story and maybe that story is based on your experiences in torturing people. (Indeed...). What you did is immoral, doesn't change the fact the story can still be good. Well told. Fascinating. Whatever.

To me, there is a difference between even that, and just coming out and boasting outright that you don't care at all about potential damages to people close to you as long as you can get your story from them, especially if you put it in the way it was put in this article. "I don’t want to do it, but wow, it’s such a good story!". That to me sounds more like about the ordinary temptation of gossip than some kind of contribution to the debate on originality/authenticity/imagination vs imitation/stealing etc. in fiction.

Especially because come on he's talking about the stories one could hear when volunteering on a helpline for people in distress. Maybe if you have if this idea of writing, you shouldn't volunteer at a helpline. Good thing he's not doing it himself.

This bit instead -- And as for other people’s secrets – the stories that are “not mine to tell” – of course they are mine to tell. All stories are mine. The whole world’s mine. -- well this bit just sounds arrogant and boorish. Look at me I'm a writer I'm above you all. Ok. Noted!

I don't know, just go ahead and do it and we'll see if we like the story itself and how you wrote it, but please don't go and boast about how you don't care that maybe you disclosed personal secrets of someone close to you and that might bother them, or boast about how you wouldn't even respect the confidentiality of a confidential helpline (nevermind the legal implications of that, he seems to look down on the other writer for having an ethical objection to that in the first place). That's not making you sound any cooler.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:22 PM on September 6, 2012


Colm Tóibín may or may not be your idea of a good writer. I've only read one of his books, and I thought it was pretty excellent.

If you're anyone of any account, an author's M.O. is to gain your confidence and betray you. It's like a game you're both playing. You know the guy can and will use your unguarded moments to crucify you, but you wager your charm and prestige will win him to your side.

I took a writing course with the author of this bestseller a year after he published. The course was about that process so a lot of lecture time was filled with anecdota from his correspondences and book tour.

Going by the picture he painted, when he was done parading the town's dirty laundry down the NYT bestseller list, Postville's primary social crisis wasn't the culture clash his book described. It was this fucking big shot professor who blew into town, got on everyone's good side, and promptly betrayed their collective hospitality. Behind this treasonous act they were at last united. Their consensus was unassailable. If he ever showed his face again they'd throw him a party with coal tar and turkey feathers.
posted by clarknova at 3:29 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can't get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." - William Faulkner, sociopath

(Faulkner of course is talking about a different kind of ruthlessness, though he certainly wasn't above putting unflattering portraits of real people into his fiction.)
posted by DaDaDaDave at 3:42 PM on September 6, 2012


A writer is always selling someone out. - Joan Didion

Occasionally him/herself.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:34 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Last year I lived in a group house with people I really should not have lived with. They want to upgrade it to a commune at some point; there are grand designs about buying an apartment building and having a giant communal bathroom where everyone can all be naked at once and whatnot.

Around the time I left, I started work on a graphic novel. As the plot developed it turned out to involve a couple of groupminds with varying degrees of creepiness, oversharing, and acquisitiveness.

There's nothing in there that directly links it to these folks I lived with. You might guess there's something going on if you know about the whole situation, and put it together with when I did it. I'm probably using this to work out some of my left-over trauma. But there's not a single incident in the story lifted directly from my experience.

Sure, go ahead, take inspiration from stuff that happens to you, or to other people. Then rip off all the details and put it into the stew with some completely unrelated things taken from the real world and your experience of it, bits from other stories you really liked, and then season with invention to taste (obviously someone who likes SF&F like myself is going to add a lot more of that then someone who prefers stuff set here and now).

Heck, the woman mentioned in the beginning of the first article linked here? She could totally use that distress phone line as inspiration, sure. Take a bit from this call, a bit from that one, bits from four or five others, mix them with a few things from a completely different place, and she's got a story happening. Something based on all this drama but not specifically stolen from anyone.

If you're going to write a straight account of this one thing that happened and just change the names, then honestly you're not much as a writer of fiction IMHO. You may be very good at turning a phrase, your writing may be a joy to read, you may be great at nipping and tucking the messiness of a real series of unfortunate events into A Story… but you're not very good at this "fiction" thing, and you should stop trying to tell people you are.
posted by egypturnash at 5:20 PM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am much encouraged by the displays of imagination here — an exhortation to be honest in writing becomes evidence of sociopathy, and a decision to publish in the face of (possibly over-estimated) negative consequences become the act of a cowardly scumbag.

See? We can cobble fictions from the everyday!
posted by klangklangston at 6:59 PM on September 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


if you don't wish to remembered via an absurd and asinine fictional representation of yourself, then don't be absurd and asinine. If the representation is thus and you are not, then it's obviously about somebody else. Fiction always has that out ...
posted by philip-random at 7:27 PM on September 6, 2012


I recommend a resource called Sesame Street, which has segments devoted to explaining a phenomenon called "imagination."

Imagination is fed by experience.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:37 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Once again, it's time to trot out Barry Longyear: It Came From Schenectady

He will tell you the ins and outs and ups and downs of the whole thing, and throw in a couple of good yarns in the process. If You haven't read the book, please do. You will discover, among other things, that Roger Zelazny sci-fies in the sci-fi rodeo.
posted by mule98J at 10:18 PM on September 6, 2012


GOOD ARTISTS BORROW. GREAT TALENTLESS ARTISTS STEAL

Yes, everybody gets ideas from experience, but those that blatantly rip off others are talentless scoundrels.
posted by destro at 6:51 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


which has segments devoted to explaining a phenomenon called "imagination."

Imagination is fed by experience.


Any effective writer engages us from four basic areas, always in some combination:

Research
Imagination
Style
Experience

This was introduced to me as the R-I-S-E scenario, though E-R-I-S would also work, and S-I-R-E ...

Sometimes Experience trumps all others, sometimes Research, Imagination, even Style. But the best writing tends to serve all four. That is, the writer has lived, the writer has investigated, the writer has worked on his/her craft and evolved a unique way of making things work, the writer has thought deeply, arrived at places that most of us could never have imagined ...

And so on. Good, great writing just ain't easy.
posted by philip-random at 8:33 AM on September 7, 2012


I think of writing as a kind of propositional logic. Just because the symbols you manipulate -- whether they are words, concepts, experiences, characters, plots, or whatever -- are finite, doesn't mean that the expressive space is also finite. It's basic Godel.

Music's easier to think about -- when you write a piece of music, you are drawing on centuries of distilled human endeavor, and (conventionally anyway) twelve pitch classes and a bunch of conventional time signatures. And yet it's still possible to write a tune no-one's heard before.

Language, and writing, is arguably more expressive than music because it has a far greater corpus of symbols to draw upon -- as defined above. So even if you buy the idea that all writing is biographical, or derivative of other works, it still doesn't limit the possibility of making something entirely new and original. The imagination is in the combinatorial possibilities.
posted by unSane at 9:04 AM on September 7, 2012


Yes, everybody gets ideas from experience, but those that blatantly rip off others are talentless scoundrels."

Yeah, talentless scoundrels like Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gerhardt Richter and T.S. Eliot (whose "Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal," is the basis for that oft-bastardized quote).

Stop being such a yutz.
posted by klangklangston at 9:08 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


(For example -- here are some axioms: Jane's a cellist, John's a mathematician, Phil's just sold a start-up to Google, Joe's a good looking pool boy and Serena's a lonely undergrad. Each of them is in love with someone else who isn't in love with them. Now write the story. How limited ARE our choices really?)
posted by unSane at 9:09 AM on September 7, 2012


The borrow/steal thing is mostly about whether you put back what you appropriated. "Borrowing" implies that you just use it mostly unchanged. "Steal" implies that you take it as your own and do what you will with it, presumably transformative.
posted by unSane at 9:13 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lichtenstein took a cartoon panel illustrated by someone else and made it larger. Not exactly talented. Yes, he is very famous for it. I'll update the quote:

GOOD ARTISTS BORROW. SUCCESSFUL, TALENTLESS ARTISTS STEAL

"Stealing" implies transformation? First I've ever heard of that.
posted by destro at 12:02 PM on September 7, 2012


Yeah, and Duchamp flipped a urinal. Oh, and Richter and Warhol both swiped news photos. Wanna add a "My kid can do that" to hit all the idiot criticism bingo spaces?

But hey, good to know that you're a talentless hack of a commenter, right?
posted by klangklangston at 12:25 PM on September 7, 2012


Sorry if my statement was a bit harsh, but no reason to get personal now.

The point being that nobody knows the comic artist that originally drew the cartoon, but Lichtenstein was able to steal his work and get famous for it. His talent was really just reusing somebody else's talent. Which really dilutes talent into simply marketing. I would say that there is something more to talent than simply marketing and PR. There is skill and craft and effort.
posted by destro at 12:45 PM on September 7, 2012


The fact that you think that Lichtenstein pic is what the quote means by 'stealing' is honestly kind of sad. Either that or you're being wilfully obtuse.

Most artists in any medium go through a long and painful process of getting out from under their influences. It takes years, usually a decade or more. You never really shed your influences -- how could you? -- but you internalize them and transmute them. You take their ideas and make them your own. That's what's meant by stealing.

'Borrowing' in that context means simple recapitulation of ideas. The Lichtenstein -- which I don't mind, but don't think is earth-shattering -- is much more of a borrow than a steal, since its provenance is so clear.

To steal something you have to take it away from the owner and make it your own. Silly examples -- the Stones taking American R&B and fucking it up, Captain Beefheart doing a cut-up job on blues, Winogrand taking Cartier-Bresson and punching his style in the head.
posted by unSane at 12:48 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Sorry if my statement was a bit harsh, but no reason to get personal now. "

It was more that your statement was a glib bit of idiotic philistinism and was ironically based on reappropriating a quote.

"The point being that nobody knows the comic artist that originally drew the cartoon, but Lichtenstein was able to steal his work and get famous for it. His talent was really just reusing somebody else's talent. Which really dilutes talent into simply marketing. I would say that there is something more to talent than simply marketing and PR. There is skill and craft and effort."

No one knows who made the urinal Duchamp flipped, though everybody pretty much knows who painted the Mona Lisa that he copied. But a huge part of 20th century art has been taking things that are not traditionally regarded as high art and placing them in a high art context in order to force the viewer to regard them as such. It is transformative, and your lazy criticism has been a continual unreflective leidmotiv of conservative critics who just didn't get it. The most obvious pop reference is how rap was treated — and still is, occasionally — as just talking over stolen music (e.g. Rapper's Delight).

It's not reducing talent to marketing, it doesn't dilute talent, and pretending that Lichtenstein didn't have skill, craft or effort is pretty idiotic.
posted by klangklangston at 1:04 PM on September 7, 2012


I was lucky enough to take an art studio course with Jeff Wall way back when, before the world had begun to take him seriously. We mostly just talked, argued, smoked cigarettes, argued some more. Being 1978, much of the arguing concerned punk rock etc and the related final death gasps of the hippie-revolution thing ... and how all this dovetailed with 20th century art history (starting with Mr. Duchamp, moving through Dada, the surrealists, onto abstract, Andy Warhol etc). The key thing is, he knew his stuff and he was a fun guy to argue with.

I would have been nineteen, I guess, and still not buying into the whole punk rock thing (I loved my prog-rock). He loved arguing all that with me, took particular delight in skewering my love of Yes and Jethro Tull. Anyway, long story short, the final project for the course was a Portrait of the Self (as opposed to a self-portrait). I ended up ditching what I was working on and throwing something completely different together the night before it was due. It was basically a collage of a few of my favorite album covers and a mash-up (cassette-to-cassette) of some of my fave prog-rock moments -- the two to be experienced together.

He loved it. Not because he agreed with my taste or thought I had particular talent as a collage artist, but because, I guess, it proved that I got something with regard to what he'd been to trying to teach us about what the 20th century had done to art. It was no longer about technique. Who needed technique after the invention of the camera? It wasn't even about fresh ideas. Who needed those with photocopiers, tape recorders etc? But it was about how an ideas (and techniques) could be given new (enhanced?) meaning and value simply by mucking with the context in which they were presented -- that in mucking with the context, the artist could draw people to new understandings of existing images, sounds, ideas ....

Or something like that.
posted by philip-random at 3:03 PM on September 7, 2012


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