Worms That Remembered Dirt

Are we being realistic when we expect art to be truly original?

Austin Kleon writes about his take on copyright law here. Since Kleon published a book titled Steal Like An Artist, he encounters a lot of people who assume he is against copyright. He assures the reader that he is not against copyright protections for intellectual property. He does, however, believe that art builds on prior art.

Every artist knows that art comes from art — it’s only the honest ones who admit it. But the reality is we live with a legal system that leads to musicians being advised not to acknowledge any influence whatsoever.

Art reflects life and life reflects art. Album titles are taken from the lines of poems. Bands are named after the songs from other bands. If art is impactful, it inspires others to make art. It used to be said that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground went out and started a band. That is one of the functions of art. It inspires others to create. I use art here in a very broad sense, meaning everything from painting to skateboarding to making spaceships out of LEGO bricks.

I have struggled with the concept of artistic appropriation myself. Frequently I see someone else’s creation and wonder if I can do something similar and put my own spin on it. There’s a kind of guilt associated with that, though. There are times when I feel like all of my ideas are just born on the backs of things others have made. It’s as if I expect myself to come up with creative works ex nihilo (out of nothing), regardless of how unrealistic that is. To underscore the difficulty of coming up with something completely new, Amanda Petrusich, writing for the New Yorker, examines just how hard it is to make original music these days. She uses the example of a white noise recording being scrutinized for plagiarism.

White noise is generally defined by hazy and inharmonious hissing — it’s noise-eating noise, anti-noise, a way of drowning out other sounds. Per a BBC report , the claimants accusing Tomczak of infringement included companies who peddle white-noise recordings as sleep therapy. It turns out that his nondescript hissing mirrored their nondescript hissing. (Following the BBC’s report, all of the claims were dropped.)

Maybe we can all stop pretending that we can generally create art that owes nothing to its influences. I like the way that Petrusich puts it when she writes, “Yet there’s something lovely and comforting about the continuum — about art begetting art, about a pulse traveling down a line.”

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Robert is a Christian, aspiring minimalist, software dev manager and paper airplane mechanic located in North Carolina.

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