Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Road Less Traveled

I received a call one evening as I was returning home from the studio. It was someone who had seen me copying a Hieronymus Bosch at the Met and taken one of my business cards. He wanted to commission me to copy this piece in the stunning Courbet exhibition.

We met at the exhibit, pondered this piece, Self Portrait with a Pipe for a few moments; the under-painting (my copy) of which is included here. I began following a train of thought which I had previously explored about the nature of copying, appropriation, and originality. You might recall my thoughts on context, and as Borges discussed in Pierre Menard, author of The Quixote, how one could find the repetition of the exact same phrase in the exact same novel to be richer than the original. Much like a joke which becomes funnier every time it is repeated. It has the added contexts of referring to the previous, as well as being re-created at a later time by a different person in a different place for different purposes.

The copy of the Courbet, has an interesting context for me personally, as he claimed (falsely or not) to be from the country and even adopted a provencal accent. I actually am from the country (Georgia) and early on had somehow negated my accent. Thus, I am copying the creation of a man who molded his persona to be more like my origins. In an odd way, this is sort of an ex-temporal mimetic coincidence. If the chronology of time were not perceived, i.e. we lived a fourth dimensional existence, what then becomes a copy, and what an original? Sorry, if I lost you there, back to my point.

Instead of investigating the line between appropriation and creation as before, I found myself lost on another path which divided from the original like the road less traveled in a Robert Frost poem. What if the copy were copied again? Does a copy of a copy have an even greater contextual richness? What of a copy of a copy of a copy? Short of taking it to the level of absurdity, let's consider simply the copy of the copy. It refers to the original context, as well as the secondary context.

Artist a paints a piece. Artist b copies it. Artist c copies b, but is fully aware of and influenced by a. There arises almost a Pythagorean relationship between these three contexts.
Artist a is a painter in the Baroque period. b is a realist painter at the end of the Romantic period, but c is a painter during the height of post-modernism and conceptual art.
a works in a manner accepted by the tradition of the time. The work of b is considered only an exercise to study technique. However, an "original figurative composition" by c might be considered passe, anachronistic, and futile, yet his copy could be construed as an ironic statement and an act pushing the envelope of direct appropriation. It can be conceived of in the theoretical vernacular of the time as having artistic merit on it's own. Doubly so because it emphasizes the redundant aspect of the self referencing which art has made throughout history. Does this negate the idea of Kitsch?

This begs a question; if everything derives from something else, yet is different in a each new context, why does it matter if it has been done before?

"Originality is nothing more than remembering everything you've heard, but forgetting where you heard it." -Mark Twain

More quotes on originality.