I’ve been thinking about one of my age-old obsessions in art and literature and music: In this age of autotune and sampling and vintage—an age of accelerating remakes, revivals, knock-offs—is there really such a thing as theft or plagiarism or copying? If there is now nothing new under the sun, can we stake claim to the fool’s gold of originality? This is something that has come stuck in my mind, an old vinyl record skipping and returning—skipping and returning—to the same refrain in a song that I am sure I have heard so many times before: a siren song that I carry in the pocket of my heart like a letter a soldier does, a missive from a great and unforgotten love.
What prompted this? I heard about a new shop that opened in hipster Chinatown. Friend’s Mart, it’s called. The shop is the brainchild of Tuesday Bassen, a graphic designer who found herself in the eye of a storm when she caught the clothing manufacturer, Zara, ripping off her designs. For those not familiar with her work, Bassen makes snarky little pins and patches that she is selling on Etsy. It turns out that this piracy is a common practice for the megaconglomerate-clothing-manufacturer, which routinely trolls through sites like Etsy to take, steal, plunder.
Tuesday Bassen is not the only independent designer whose works have been stole—ummmm…appropriated—by corporations like Zara. But she is the most notable one with the most documented cases of theft. And now, Tuesday Bassen is embroiled in a law suit and, in the process, has emerged as something of a graphic arts celebrity. What has threatened to destroy her, ironically, has translated into the fan base (and the capital) necessary to open up a store front for artwork–a storefront that represents the work of those small, independent designers whose labor has been ripped off by corporations with deep pockets.
Of course, the thing that complicates this is that so much of the graphic arts nowadays relies upon unoriginality as its starting point. And part of the joy of looking at Tuesday Bassen’s work comes not so much from the feeling that she is an artist with piercing vision that invents out of whole cloth but, rather, that she is an artist that does the exact opposite. Our enjoyment of her work comes solely from what postmodern scholars call the wit of the “belated”—that feeling of having arrived well after everything meaningful has been executed. In other words, she is no James Joyce, that great modernist novelist who famously declared he would, “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Artists like Tuesday Bassen aren’t “makers” in the traditional sense. They are not visionaries who seek to produce true acts of invention. Ezra Pound could command his fellow modernists to follow that great catch-phrase, “Make It New!” But Tuesday is not about newness. She is about the reworn and retread. We can see this in so many of the cute little Etsy-esque creations in the catalog of rip-offs that has made the rounds, going viral and bringing Tuesday her fame and fortune.
Here is a diary that says “Keep Out” with a lock in the shape of a heart; the only significant contribution of the artist is not so much in the creation of an actual object. That diary was already an object which already existed in time. Rather, any newness came in perhaps the choice to depict this repository of secret thoughts within a certain flattened childlike perspective view.
Or there is a crystal ball–the kind that is often used in signage to advertise the services of clairvoyants. Underneath it is the words “psychic” and the replication of the reflection recast as little squares. The thing to realize is that such signage is not really the creation of the artist. But the creation of a collective of anonymous artists involved in the folk craft of sign-making. Put another way: the crystal ball exists as a found object in the built environment of the urban landscape—immediately recognizable at freeway exits and the windows of old ladies in crumbling neighborhoods.
The sign is a part of our visual lexicon. It exists on the level of stereotype: infinitely reproducible and reproduced in reproductions…and now reproduced in another reproduction. What is the contribution of the artist except to now think something like that is worth reproducing again? Is that an original thought?
Zara had this to say to the official complaint made by Tuesday’s lawyers: “We reject your claims here for reasons similar to those already stated above: the lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.”
This slap-down was crude and effective…but perhaps not the best PR move. Tuesday Bassen responded by doing what all young millenials do in this age of internet activism: she photoshopped Zara’s words and juxtaposed it with her originals and their copies…and then she tweeted and instagrammed and the rest is viral history.
Most people think that we live in a Postmodern moment. And that if there is one truth to the realities of the Postmodern, it is this: that there is nothing new under the sun. This may be true, but I would add a little more to that hypothesis: we may all know that there is nothing new but we are nagged by the desire to claim that there is something that can be seen as original.
In this nanosecond of the timeline that is the Postmodern Moment, then, we find ourselves at the crossroads of art, looking back nostalgically at ideas of originality that are altogether impossible in this cut-and-paste world. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun. This is something smart people have been saying for well over the last fifty years–first among brainiac philosophers, later among theorists. But this is only half of the artistic lie that we tell ourselves.
As the years have passed, this idea that we must embrace unoriginality has gained greater traction, moving out of heady academic circles and into our popular culture. We see it in Ted Talks like the one that the record producer Mark Ronson gave, which disabused us of the idea that there was anything left in the world of musical ideas–anything except samples. We also see it in little manuals like Steal Like an Artist, which became so popular that it could be bought at Museum Gift Shops and Urban Outfitters.
And so that leaves us with that question—a stuttering needle stuck repeating over a hairline fracture that divides two eras—that question that is burning to be asked as if it were the elegant curve of a squirrel’s tail (bushy and erect and upward) in the canopy of a tree that frames the horizon of an infinite skyline: Is it okay if my next novel is somebody else’s novel—word for word? Or should I recognize that I am living in a moment of transition–one that looks backward and forward–and stick in a few words of my own, here and there, for good measure in this great book that I have been shopping around to a few select agents, which I have come to tentatively title Crime And Punishment?