Speaking of art and reproduction, having probably just read Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters or one of André Breton’s surrealist manifestos, eighteen-year-old German Helene Hegemann has written a book on “Berlin’s club scene” incorporating large portions of another writer’s prose. Charges of plagiarism flew, as they always do on such occasions. However, instead of responding with “the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction,” as The New York Times puts it, Hegemann stated that she intended to “borrow” the material all along—thus supposedly making the action art, not plagiarism. “There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity,” Hegemann is reported to have said to the collective sigh of philosophy professors worldwide.
Tacitly, Ms. Hegemann’s actions can be understood as a critique (and rightly so) of the definition of art in terms of originality alone. All writers and artists borrow from each other. There is “nothing new under the sun.”
Ironically, however, subversive efforts like Ms. Hegemann’s to challenge this reductive definition of art—most notoriously, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain—have often been lauded because of their original critique of originality itself, encouraging other artists to create increasingly bizarre and shocking pieces of “anti-art” in a never-ending, but profitable, game of one-upmanship.
I wonder if Ms. Hegemann is hoping to profit from exactly this sort of game? Duchamp’s Fountain was once defended by an anonymous art critic as a work of art on the grounds that “[h]e CHOSE it.” This is exactly how Ms. Hegemann seems to be positioning herself by evoking her intentions. Because she chose to include another writer’s words, it’s not plagiarism, but art, of which she no doubt hopes to reap the benefits. And so far, she seems to be doing nicely.
Whatever Ms. Hegemann’s ultimate intentions, the fact is this subversive approach to art and literature (and perhaps what is left of the avant-garde) is now less about critiquing the notion of originality than benefiting from it. A real critique of the overblown emphasis on originality is not more concept art, but less. There may be no new ideas, but there are better and worse ways of expressing those ideas. Thus, a renewed emphasis on craft would redress the balance nicely enough.