Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You know kids, it's time to start making your own culture instead of sampling other people's

In what has become a kind of ritual, Beyoncé has once again been accused of plagiarizing someone else's moves - this time those of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, a Belgian choreographer (a comparison of portions of the two dances in question are above; and, yeah, it's pretty obvious Beyoncé lifted the goods).

The usual suspects, of course, have been making the same old lame excuses for the beautiful and undeniably talented singer,  as well as her choreographer and director, and by extension their entire generation, who together have grown up imagining that 'sampling' counts as a valid artistic statement. So I think it's time - actually, it's well past time - to begin laying down some critical ground rules around this "technique."

First and foremost: there are only two - only two - valid reasons to "sample."  The first is to truly transform the material - to translate it into a new medium/context, or improve its quality, and extend its reach.  This is what a great artist like Shakespeare does with a plot, or a composer like Dvořák does with a borrowed theme.

The second is to create a dialogue with the source material in question.  And creating a dialogue requires that the audience in question be aware of (and understand) the cultural provenance of the sample.  If that awareness is in place, then the sample can operate as tribute, or critique, or even as a jumping-off point for the sampling artist's statement, for the new material in play.   For a time, I suppose, brazen recycling in and of itself could claim some credence as that statement, or at least as a novelty; but that time is long since over. In and of itself, sampling is now a cliché.

Therefore, if no such transformation or dialogue is in the offing, then the samples in question are aesthetically suspect.

And alas, it's hard to argue Beyoncé and her choreographer are translating anything into another medium (they're basically keeping it in the same medium), much less improving on it (the two sets of moves are exactly the same).  Plus they are clearly sampling from work - and a whole tradition - unknown to their audience, so it's hard to see what sort of dialogue Beyoncé  has created with her sources; indeed, nor is it credible that she ever intended to create such a dialogue.  But then it's hard to feel there's any real coherence to the video in question, "Countdown" (much of the rest of it is borrowed, only from more famous sources, and the song itself is an obvious pastiche, too).   The inevitable conclusion from all these observations is that yeah, Beyoncé has simply shoplifted the material for her video.

Only I know, I know - how can Beyoncé be a plagiarist?  Beyoncé!!!!  I mean, if she's a plagiarist, then EVERYONE is a plagiarist!!!

Yep, and that's precisely the problem.  This has all gone on far too long, boys and girls - this deliberate confusion between cultural quotes operating in a developing tradition and the simple, cynical stitching together of the past's greatest hits to simulate an original single, or album - or play or exhibition.  I mean why, exactly, was one of the highest-paid performers in pop simply riffling through samples of choreography to copy?  Why?  And why do we now expect that to be the standard operating procedure?  There are probably many reasons why millennial culture is so thin and forgettable, but this is certainly one of them.  I have to ask the people who are so addicted to this gimmick - who do you think is going to quote from you if all you've done is quote from other people?  Yet all I read from our cultural mandarins are howls of pain whenever intellectual property rights are asserted, whenever someone is prevented from appropriating someone else's work as their own.

It strikes me, however, that cultural observers should be APPLAUDING this sort of thing, every time it happens, rather than whining about it.  Because if necessity is the mother of invention, then it's the parent of originality, too.  And the millennials could definitely stand to be just a bit more original, I think.  They should certainly be encouraged not to quote, not to reference, any more than they absolutely have to.  To forge something that is truly new - that should be the goal.  I have to say that I can already tell from the tone of many cultural observers that to them this is unthinkable.  They have no confidence whatsoever that the current generation could ever create anything truly new.  I'd like to believe they're wrong, but when faced by the pathetic discourse around obvious rip-offs like this one, I confess it's hard to hang onto that faith.


  1. Mr. Garvey, you are absolutely correct. Thank you for pointing out a major weakness of my generation. It's not that we mean to be thieves of intellect and creativity, we just don't know any better. I think the latter is even more sad than the former, don't you? We don't consider creation an option.

    I am a millennial. I am a thinker. I am an artist and I accept your challenge.

  2. Go for it Anna, whether you're being ironic or not!! I know you can do it!!!

  3. Even as someone who enjoys good appropriation art, I am still in complete agreement.

    However, the problem you describe didn't start with the millennials.

    Every art historian, collector, curator, and critic who legitimated Roy Lichtenstein's career, which was almost entirely built on plagiarism, lay the groundwork for Beyoncé's defenders. Once you start comparing Lichtenstein's works to the original source material, not only does one see a lack of tranformative or dialectical potency, but the simple fact that Lichtenstein is an inferior draftsman.

  4. True enough, but it's only gotten worse since Lichtenstein. (And Warhol's probably the true begetter of the whole recent trend in this direction.) Even if you feel that acknowledgment of appropriation has its place in artistic history, however, that doesn't mean you should applaud it as an eternal constant in the culture, much less a topic of our discourse. That's like saying we should all be painting Madonnas forever, or sculpting Greek gods.

  5. The difference, however, is that Warhol actually did produce a transformative and dialectical relationship with his source materials. Lichtenstein, on the other hand, made a career out of poorly executed tracings of the works of Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, and Gil Kane amongst others.

    However, the larger point is that there is so much appropriation art (even within the realm of pop) that is genuinely transformative and dialectical: Big Audio Dynamite, Negativland, Alan Moore for example, that there really is no excuse for the plagiaristic activities of Sean Puffy Combs, Beyoncé, or Led Zeppelin.

  6. Funny you should mention ... I'm just now working on a Telemann cantata that Handel seems to have positively *stolen* for some music in Solomon. I'm willing to bet that such "thievery" was much more common when we didn't have strong copyright laws.

    Imitation, flattery, etc. Originality is overrated ... although ...

  7. I agree about Warhol, btw. But one thing I should have added to this essay is that one reason "sampling" has become so acceptable is it makes criticism so easy. After all, if the art you're writing about is basically recycled, you can simply recycle your old opinions, too. You can sample yourself, hang as part of a crowd, work the room as a spokesman for the conventional wisdom, the way so many writers do. You don't have to work through anything new, or strike out on your own with an original vision.

  8. Sorry, Charlie, but if you think that tired critical gambit - which you're of course sampling yourself - is going to impress me, think again. Of course, if Beyonce ever comes up with something like a Handel cantata, call me and we'll talk. Till then, don't bore me with the standard-issue critical crapola about how geniuses borrowed, too (we're not still listening to Handel because of the theme he stole from Telemann!). And while we're waiting for Beyonce and Lichtenstein to come through, why not actually READ my post, particularly that "transform or translate the original material" part?