You Are Not a Switch

Recreativity and the modern dismissal of genius.


Illustration by Laura Terry.

Some years ago I visited the Tate Modern in London with my young son. Then aged 5, he had lately been drawing pictures of a fantastical nature, so as we approached the threshold of a Surrealism retrospective, I suggested that he might want to check these paintings out. “It’s really weird, this stuff,” I said, giving it the hard sell. “And you might get some good ideas.” He just flashed me a disapproving look: “That would be copying.”

This incident sprang to mind recently when making my way through a spate of recent books, articles, and blog posts celebrating the practice of artistic theft. In stark contrast to my 5-year-old’s seemingly instinctive aversion to mimesis, an emerging movement of critics, theorists, writers, and artists argue that techniques of appropriation and quotation are inherent to the creative process. Not only are the concepts of originality and innovation obsolete, they’ve always been myths. Let’s call this movement recreativity.

The most high-profile proponents of recreativity are Jonathan Lethem and David Shields. Both published manifestos—“The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, respectively—that put into practice what they preach by being assembled almost entirely out of quotations. Earlier this summer another acclaimed novelist, Tom McCarthy, entered the fray with the e-book Transmission and The Individual Remix. Academia has produced book-length interventions such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing and Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, while art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has brought a fresh twist to old debates about appropriation and the ready-made with his concept of postproduction art.  

Many of these polemics make allusions to DJ culture in their titles: Mark Amerika’s remixthebook, Kirby Ferguson’s video essays and website Everything Is A Remix, Arram Sinnreich’s Mashed Up. Remixing and mashups are familiar—indeed, somewhat tired—notions in dance culture, but in critical circles they enjoy modish currency because they seem to capture something essential about the cut-and-paste sensibility fostered by digital culture. Likewise, the Internet’s gigantic archive of image, sound, text, and design has encouraged a view of the artist as primarily a curator, someone whose principal modes of operation involve recontextualization and connection-making. 

As a neutral description of the current state of the art in many fields, this would be fine. But recreativists don’t just champion these practices, they make grand claims about the essentially recycled nature of all art. In Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling, authors Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola quote the DJ Matt Black’s assertion that “humans are just sampling machines … that’s how we learn to paint and make music.” In an opinion piece for NPR, Alva Noë discussed contemporary anxieties about plagiarism in a cut-and-paste era and defended quotation as an artistic practice. But instead of stopping there, he also asserted that “sampling is nothing new, not in art, and not in life … Evolution, whether in biology, or in technology and culture, is never anything other than a redeployment of old means in new circumstances.* We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”

Recreativity has many proponents and represents a wide spectrum of opinion. Still, it’s striking how easily some of these critics and theorists glide from relatively sensible talk about the role of appropriation and allusion in art to sweeping claims of an ontological or biological nature. They seem so confident. How they can be certain that nobody has ever just come up with some totally new idea, ex nihilo? The remixed nature of everything (not new) under the sun has become an article of faith. Impossible to prove, these assertions tell us way more about our current horizons of thought and our cultural predicament than they do about the nature of creativity or the history of art.   

In Steal Like an Artist, Kleon approvingly cites Jonathan Lethem’s claim that “when people call something ‘original,’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.” That’s just one of many widely cited maxims on the recreativity circuit. Others include “We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants” and that hardy perennial, “Talent borrows, genius steals,” attributed to a wide array of poets and painters. 

The emphasis of that particular proverbial truism has shifted, though. It used to be a way of celebrating the artfulness of the genius, who takes something and makes it his or her own, effectively erasing its origin and turning it into another facet of his or her glittering originality. This contrasts with the timid craftsman—the merely talented—who never quite makes you forget the source and ultimately achieves glitter only by association. But nowadays the rhetorical purpose of “genius steals” is decidedly different: It’s meant to make us feel more skeptical about the very idea of the genius, who allegedly pilfers his ideas from elsewhere, just like anybody else.

It’s certainly true that the concept of genius, as famously formulated in Edward Young’s 1759 Conjectures on Original Composition, is unfashionable nowadays. It’s been chipped away from multiple angles by scholars keen to stress the role of context and the influence of contemporary peers, so that what appears to be an individual breakthrough is really the outcome of collective processes. Today we reject as dated and middlebrow the Romantic idea of the visionary artist gushing forth inspiration from deep within or from some transcendent plane of mystery.  That myth is explicitly targeted by recreativity maven Marjorie Perloff in her book Unoriginal Genius, which recasts writing as “moving information.” Other recreativity proponents characterize the artist or writer as a filter, a sort of “search engine endowed with consciousness” (to modernize Baudelaire’s trope of the artist as a sentient kaleidoscope drifting dazed through the metropolis).

You don’t have to be an antiquated Romantic or old-fashioned early 20th-century-style Modernist to find this input/output version of creativity unappealing. Surely the artist or writer is more than just a switch for the relay of information flows, the cross-referencing of sources and coordinates? What is missed out in the recreativity model is the body: the artist as a physical being, someone whose life and personal history has left them marked with a singular set of desires and aversions. There is also the little matter of will: bubbling up from within, that profoundly inegalitarian drive to stand out, to assert oneself in the face of anonymity and death. It’s this aspect of embodiment and ego that gets downgraded in digital culture, which tends to reduce us to the textual: a receiver/transmitter of data, a node in the network. This is what civilizations and societies always do: remake the past in the present’s image, mistake the current conditions of knowledge and experience and feeling for an unchanging human condition or biological reality.

Still, let’s entertain for a moment the notion that the recreativity believers are right: that innovation is an obsolete and unhelpful notion and that the curatorial, informationalized model of art is where things are at. A few years ago William Gibson opined, via Twitter, that “less creative people believe in ‘originality’ and ‘innovation,’ two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts.” Forget for the moment that Gibson would appear to be rather an original writer, an innovator in his field. What’s relevant here is that he is characterizing as false consciousness the mindset that powered everything from 20th-century modernism to the most dynamic eras of popular music. Post-World War II jazz explorers like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. The 1960s psychedelic moment, with the Beatles circa Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix between Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland. Post-punk pioneers like Talking Heads, Joy Division, and Public Image Ltd. Nineties techno-rave-influenced auteurs such as Goldie, Bjork, and Aphex Twin. Even today, evidence would suggest that artists, writers, and musicians who labor under the misconception that it’s possible to come up with something new under the sun are much more likely to try for that and thus stand a better chance of reaching it.  Perhaps it would be better if we continued to be “misled”! Whereas the ideology of recreativity, as it spreads, not only legitimizes lazy, parasitic work, it actively encourages it by making it seem cool, “timely,” somehow more advanced than that quaint middlebrow belief in the shock of the new.  

As much as it is propaganda in favor of underachievement, recreativity is also, I suspect, a form of solace: reassuring balm for the anxiety of overinfluence, the creeping fear that one might not have anything of one’s own to offer. The achievements of a great composer or a great band (such as Led Zeppelin, a target of Everything Is A Remix’s Kirby Ferguson) seem less imposing if you can point to their debts and derivations. Part of the appeal of standing on the shoulders of giants is that it makes the giants seem smaller.

Revealing that Nabokov probably purloined the title and basic plot premise of Lolita from a 1916 short story by the German author Heinz von Lichberg serves to diminish Vlad’s stature just a little, bring him down to our level. Even though that fact can hardly account for the overflowing inventiveness of the language, the brilliance of characterization, the satirically mordant observation of  late 1940s America, and all the other ample evidence of  Nabokov’s, if you’ll excuse me, genius. 

Although its proponents see recreativity at work in every field of artistic endeavor, fiction and poetry seem particularly prone to being viewed in terms of recycling. I think that’s because literature lacks the dynamic relationship with technology that you see at work in the plastic arts, cinema, or pop music: the new formal possibilities opened up by innovations in materials and production processes. Working with the same tools as it always has—words—and steadily amassing behind it a couple of millennia worth of narratives, archetypes, tropes, and so forth, literature inevitably starts to feel more and more like a closed, self-referential system. Hence the confidence with which Tom McCarthy declares, near the start of Transmission and the Individual Remix, that “every groundbreaking or innovative work turns out, when probed a little, to be piggybacking on a precedent, which in turn has its own precedents.”

But rather than wring his hands about the predicament of belatedness, McCarthy argues that ‘twas ever thus. Each and every writer, from Shakespeare on down, is “a receiver, modulator, retransmitter”: “not an originating speaker” but “a listener” whose activity is necessarily “a secondary one.” Moreover, literature can only really be about other literature: No new content can seep into it from experience, history, the changing world outside. “Let me … affirm in no uncertain terms, that … I have nothing to say,” writes McCarthy. “Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim that no serious writer does.”

Recreativity talk often has, like this, a peculiarly cheerful, even rousing tone and a categorical sweep to its proclamations. But beneath the surface positivity, I suspect, lurks despair about a kind of inner poverty, as though the mass of cultural matter we collect and stuff into ourselves is just making us ever more empty and barren inside.  The mental sleight of hand in “genius steals” is the syllogistic implication that if you steal your ideas from here, there, and everywhere, you might actually be a genius, too. Hence Austin Kleon’s candid and chirpy confession (and suggestion: you try it, too, budding artist!) that he has a “swipe file.” “See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.”

If only it were so simple. The stealing and the storing is the easy part. The much harder—and forever mysterious—stage is the transformation of the borrowed materials.  Recreativity has nothing to say about this stage of the process, the bit where, every so often, genius comes into play. It’s not the fact or the act of theft but what’s done with the stolen thing that counts: the spin added that “makes it new” (to twist slightly the modernist injunction of Ezra Pound, a major exponent of quotation and allusion himself).  The hallmark, or proof, of genius, in fact, is not merely transmitting or remixing. It’s fashioning something that others will someday want to steal.

*Correction, Oct. 5, 2012: This article originally referred to Alva Noë as a she. He is a he.

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