How Original Are You?


Arts & Culture

Copyright © Museo Nacional del Prado

“The old idea of making things”

So there I was, sprawled across the floor of my living room in south London, happily riffling through the newspapers on my iPad (I’m old-fashioned like that). The shortlist for the annual Turner Prize had just been announced, and the broadsheet commentators seemed even more mystified than usual by the list of nominees.

It was evident that the judges had done something unusual—unusual even in the context of the prize that had made Tracey Emin’s Bed tabloid fodder—by the reaction in the Guardian, where the super-sober Adrian Searle declared himself baffled. After offering a rundown of the candidates (Duncan Campbell, James Richards, Tris Vonna-Michell, Ciara Phillips), he declared: “It’s all a bit dour, and I take this as deliberate. This year’s judges seem to be intent on delivering an exhibition that not only shakes things up—none of the shortlisted artists are exactly familiar to a wider audience—but also want us to struggle with meaning as much as the artists seem to do … It’s going to be hard work.” 

Hard work. Oh dear.

If the progressives on the left weren’t exactly licking their lips in anticipation of the prize show’s unveiling, what would the guardians of tradition on the right make of it?  I switched to the website of the conservative broadsheet the Daily Telegraph to find out. “When the most conventional of the Turner Prize shortlisted artists is an installation artist whose work is created in situ by other artists, designers and members of the public,” the piece began, “you realize that contemporary art, or certainly the kind represented by this once controversial prize, is leaving traditional media far behind. Never mind no painting or sculpture, casting an eye down this year’s list of artists you’d be forgiven for thinking there’ll be precious little in the exhibition actually to look at.”

The Telegraph writer then complained about the list’s lack of classic elements such as the usual “people’s choice”–style nominee (a role fulfilled in 2013 by the cartoonist David Shrigley) as well as a classic boundary-pushing scapegoat figure “likely to prove exceptionally annoying to the general public” (a part played to perfection by the performance artist Spartacus—christened Alalia, soon to be renamed Marvin Gaye—Chetwynd in 2012).  “That said,” he paused, “all four of this year’s artists are likely to prove equally annoying to those determined to be irritated by contemporary art.”

All fair points, I thought. But it was the next paragraph that really caught my attention. “Three of the four work in so-called Moving Image Art (what a ghastly term), but the similarities don’t end there,” the Telegraph man opined.  No, it wasn’t so much that their work moved that appalled him as the fact that it was in significant part made with “pre-existing or found material.” For instance, James Richards’s Rosebud incorporates erotic images from art books sourced from a Japanese library where genitalia have been and sandpapered out in compliance with national censorship laws. “Looking at their work you get a sense that the old idea of making things that didn’t exist before from scratch has been pretty much abandoned.”


I was so taken aback by this statement that I almost lost Internet connection (my iPad and I have a symbiotic relationship; if I’m in a head spin she’s likely to start buffering moodily). Is that true? I wondered after I had steadied myself. Has “the old idea of making things that didn’t exist before from scratch” really been “pretty much abandoned”?

Channeling the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw in best “I’ve just had a really obvious idea” mode, I began to type the following, to be read aloud in Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice: Have our notions of originality really changed so much?  Are we less original than our predecessors, unable to summon works ex nihilo—out of nothing—as “real artists” used to?

This is an idea that deserves to be parsed, I thought.

“I create vertigo”

On the day the Turner Prize shortlist was announced, the artist Elaine Sturtevant—or just plain Sturtevant, as she was known professionally—died. She was eighty-nine, so not exactly the new kid on the block; indeed, she had made her most resonant artistic statement half a century earlier, in 1965, when she gave her first solo exhibition at the Bianchini Gallery in New York. That show featured carefully handcrafted works that begged to be mistaken variously for the plaster sculptures of George Segal and the stripe paintings of Frank Stella, not to mention silk-screened images that were almost indistinguishable from the breakthrough “Flowers” series by the then-emerging art superstar Andy Warhol. As a reviewer quipped at the time, Sturtevant “must be the first artist in history to have had a one-man show”—today we would say “one-person show”—“that included everybody but herself.”

It should be stressed that the difficulty of telling Sturtevant’s vivid blooms apart from Warhol’s was entirely intentional on the part of both artists: Warhol actually lent Sturtevant his original screens to execute the images for the show. Over the coming years, Sturtevant would make a habit of copying the works of Warhol, who connived at the practice and, to avoid answering cloying questions about his working methods, once quipped: “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.” Sturtevant also copied Jasper Johns’s work—so well that when a Johns “flag” that had been incorporated into a Robert Rauschenberg combine painting was stolen, Rauschenberg turned to her to provide a replacement. Sturtevant’s “repetitions,” as she called them, were designed to disorientate. They were intended to be precise enough to persuade viewers that they were looking at an “authentic” Warhol or Johns, and at the same time sufficiently free and inexact to suggest that another hand might be at work—indeed, for the work to be no less unmistakably a Sturtevant. “I create vertigo,” the artist-reporter liked to say.

The conceptual element of Sturtevant’s practice—the fact that appreciation of her work relies on engagement with ideas rather than on simple visual gratification—prevented her from becoming a household name. All the same, with the passage of the years, collectors have increasingly got, and bought into, the concept. Her repetition of Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl sold for $710,500 in 2011, compared to the $78,400 achieved by the “original” at auction four years earlier.

Of course, one of the points of Sturtevant’s work was to put that very word—“original”—in inverted commas. Much of her practice involved repeating the works of Pop Artists who had themselves broken with art tradition by borrowing from mass-popular-culture imagery: Warhol copies Campbell’s soup cans, and for Crying Girl Lichtenstein took his inspiration from comic strips. Sturtevant was therefore copying works that were themselves to some degree copying other mechanically produced objects—and that were, moreover, using mechanical means to do so. “By holding up her imprecise mirror to a gallery of twentieth-century titans,” the New York Times obituarist noted, “Ms. Sturtevant spent her career exploring ideas of authenticity, iconicity and the making of artistic celebrity … and, ultimately, the nature of the creative process itself.”

All the world’s a copy

Sturtevant was an avowed copyist whose work looked forward to the emergence of appropriation as a critically and curatorially supported art strategy at the end of the 1970s. (The most celebrated example of appropriation art: Walker Evans’s famous Great Depression–era photographs rephotographed from reproductions in an exhibition catalogue by Sherrie Levine and put on show under Levine’s name rather than Walker’s. “By literally taking the pictures she did, and then showing them as hers,” wrote one profiler in 1986, Levine “wanted it understood that she was flatly questioning—no, flatly undermining—those most hallowed principles of art in the modern era: originality, intention, expression.”)

Looking back, however, who are the great artistic geniuses whose weighty, unimpeachably “original” accomplishments can be placed in the pan to prove the lightness of such postmodern nose-thumbing gestures as Sturtevant’s and Levine’s?  Leonardo, Van Gogh, Goethe, Mozart. Surely there is no greater artistic “original” than William Shakespeare? The great French writer Alexandre Dumas, creator of The Three Musketeers, declared: “After God, Shakespeare has created the most.” Meanwhile, the great American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that Shakespeare did nothing less than “invent … the text of modern life.”

So William Shakespeare—second only to God in his capacity to create ex nihilo. It’s reckoned that at any time of day or night a theatrical troupe somewhere on the planet will be performing Hamlet, a play that, like many of Shakespeare’s other works, appears to enjoy universal resonance. And at any time of day or night thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions across the world will be quoting him. They might be reciting the Dane’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy or King Harry’s rousing pre-Agincourt rallying cry in Henry V (“we happy few, we band of brothers”). But more likely, they’ll be appropriating humbler, more anonymous-sounding phrases such as “seen better days,” “strange bedfellows,” “a sorry sight,” and “full circle,” all of which are Shakespearean coinages. Fully a tenth of the words in the Bard’s plays appear to have been original to him. Thanks to the inclusion of so many of those words and phrases as examples of good usage in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary and the later Oxford English Dictionary, and to the plays’ enduring popularity on the stage, innumerable examples of Shakespeare’s language—from “with bated breath” (The Merchant of Venice) to “wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) and “too much of a good thing” (As You Like It)—have been adopted as the basic building blocks of our own day-to-day conversation.

So Shakespeare invented his own language and begat the modern English tongue in the process. How much more original can you be?

It is Shakespeare’s plays’ openness to different interpretations—their inherent appropriability—that has made them so enduring as stage vehicles. Take Henry V, which dramatizes England’s victory over the French at Agincourt and is usually considered to be the playwright’s most overtly patriotic play. Directors at different times have offered seemingly contradictory interpretations of the text: at the Old Vic theater in London in 1937, Laurence Olivier’s King Henry conveyed a pacifist message; a few years later Olivier’s film of the same play, dedicated to the men who had liberated Europe from the Nazis, offered a conflicting message; Nicholas Hytner’s more recent production at the National Theatre in London drew critical and not at all gung-ho parallels with Britain’s intervention in Iraq. Same text, different meanings. The Taming of the Shrew has likewise been staged as both a misogynistic rant and a feminist tract. In the hands of different directorial appropriators then, Shakespeare’s plays are both left-wing and right-wing, socially conservative and politically progressive, cozily pro-Establishment and full of radical fury.

To sum up: Shakespeare is the most original of artists who, despite the inimitability of what one might term his “voice,” has proved eminently appropriable, blending into and becoming part of the distinctive voices of others. It’s an odd phenomenon, and also a common one.

But how “original” was Shakespeare actually? It’s well known that he stole a lot of his plots from published sources. The main narrative of Romeo and Juliet? Filched. Hamlet? A rip-off. King Lear? Also half inched. And it wasn’t just plots that he stole from his sources; it was often enough their language, too—and what is Shakespeare if not his language? For instance, when he sat down to write Antony and Cleopatra, old Will didn’t start with a blank page. No, he had a copy of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by Sir Thomas North (1579), open at his elbow. And what he found in North’s Plutarch (as literary scholars are wont to call it), he in significant part copied, the most famous bit of cribbing being the speech in which Enobarbus describes the Egyptian queen floating in gilded splendor down the Nile (“The barge she sat in”).

Borrowing was a core part of the Bard’s creative process, then. The fact that he was in possession of an imagination of seemingly limitless inventive capacity doesn’t appear to have stopped him from looking over the shoulder of the boy sitting at the desk next to him as he wrote. If Shakespeare had written Antony and Cleopatra in New York in the late 1970s, academics might have hailed him as a lion among literary appropriationists and theorized his overt use of sources as a deft postmodern commentary on the idea of originality. (Plenty of audience members in Shakespeare’s own day would have recognized the borrowings form North’s Plutarch—it was a popular text.)

Separated by four centuries, Shakespeare and the so-called Pictures Generation of appropriationists in the United States have more in common than you might imagine in terms of their working methods. But the ways in which their respective achievements have been interpreted and theorized are diametrically opposed. “After God, Shakespeare created the most” and “wrote the text of modern life,” literary commentators have consistently cried, whereas Sturtevant, Levine and co. have been eulogized for “dismantl[ing] the core values identified with the artwork: authorship, originality and expressivity”—that is, they deconstructed the text of modern life and, with it, the idea of godlike creation.


This essay is excerpted from Beg, Steal & Borrow: Artists Against Originality by Robert Shore. Reprinted with permission of Laurence King Publishing. All rights reserved.

Robert Shore is the author of 10 Principles of Advertising, Post-Photography, and Bang in the Middle, a study of Midland history, ritual, and folklore. He is the editor of Elephant magazine.