“Good artists copy, great artists steal,” said Pablo Picasso. Or at least he gets the credit for saying it. Perhaps he pinched the words from Oscar Wilde. For there truly is nothing new under the sun, or not entirely new, anyway. Originality does not burst from an artist’s head like an alien entity, but is a subtle game of variations and transformations out of which, once in a while, comes the shudder of true artistic surprise.
A group of art intellectuals who have questioned the originality of a performance to be staged by Marina Abramović at the Serpentine Gallery this summer has strayed into very silly territory. They are wrong about the very nature of art, and the way it changes through time; its history. This is bizarre, because the people making the fuss are professional art historians. They insist Abramović should acknowledge a previous work by the American artist Mary Ellen Carroll, which they say has a prior claim to her chosen theme. In a surreal twist that theme happens to be “nothing”.
Before we ponder who owns the concept of nothing, let’s take a detour to the remote and dusty era of art prior to 1960. Don’t art academics study any history earlier than this before they do a PhD on the Fluxus movement? Because any acquaintance with the Old Masters reveals that art has always been an exchange of ideas in which influence is not just omnipresent but proudly accepted. The story of art is largely a story of homages, remakes, rivalrous borrowings, nuanced imitations.
Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 34 in London’s National Gallery could hardly be a more personal work. It’s a self-portrait, after all. The artist confronts himself in the mirror, adopts a pose and depicts it. As acts of intense self-scrutiny, Rembrandt’s self-portraits are as radical as any piece of performance art. Yet Rembrandt is deliberately copying the pose of a portrait of a man in blue by Venetian Renaissance artist Titian: he is squaring up to Titian as an influence by literally restaging one of his portraits. The work he imitated also happens to hang in the National Gallery for all to see.
This kind of assimilation of models is fundamental to great art, from Titian finishing works by his own influences Bellini and Giorgione, to Manet turning Titian’s Venus of Urbino into his own provocative nude Olympia. Stealing is how art happens. Picasso, self-proclaimed thief that he was, painted his own versions of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Las Meninas by Velázquez. Even in Guernica, he pays homage to no less venerable a work than Raphael’s fresco The Fire in the Borgo.
If all this art history seems a bit heavy, how about some examples from comedy? In the world of comedy writing, where a new joke is as rare as a good BBC sitcom, creative borrowing is itself a joke. In Larry David’s sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm his friend Richard Lewis claims to have invented the term “… from hell”. As in the breakfast from hell, the performance art from hell. He insists he was the first person ever to use this cliche. What is originality in performance art? It seems to be inseparable from your own person, your own life. Abramović claims to be original because of who she is – it is she who sits gazing into peoples’ eyes at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in one of her acclaimed shows, and no one else. In fact, she has done a series of performances in which she restaged classic works by other artists in her own idiom – as herself, as Marina Abramović. She explicitly regards originality as lying in the texture of her performances, their lived experience: it’s the way she tells ‘em.
On the other hand, I can’t help returning to David. In Seinfeld, the sitcom he co-created, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza try to sell “a show about nothing”. So should it be Seinfeld’s creators writing an angry letter to the Serpentine? They know better. In modern culture – ask Samuel Beckett – “nothing” is a cliche even more venerable than “… from hell”. Who was the first artist to confront nothing? Perhaps it was Kasimir Malevich when he painted The Black Square in 1915, or Richard Huelsenbeck when he banged a nihilistic “Dada drum” at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, or Marcel Duchamp when he exhibited that renowned urinal in 1917.
Art has been flirting with nihilism for at least a century now. If you want to accuse Abramović of a lack of originality in her new artwork, you would have to survey all the past icons of nothingness, from the Rothko Chapel in Houston to The Lights Going On and Off at the Tate.
Behind this row lurks a deeper anxiety. As you can see from the dates above, the roots of today’s most radical art lie in the first world war. Dada is about to celebrate its centenary. The entire edifice of contemporary art is built on the idea of total revolution, of things so new and challenging they are like a diamond bullet in your head. Yet it’s all been done before. Originality has always been a complex phenomenon, and the more interesting and valid point those art historians could have made – rather than focusing on the individual, on Abramović – is that advanced art in the 21st century now lives off the past in a way that is unhealthy, like some dead Byzantine culture that, paradoxically, worships the new. Art today is perpetually restaging ideas first enunciated in the 1960s or even the 1910s.
Best to keep quiet about originality and influence, art world, lest you draw everyone’s attention to that 100-year-old Dada elephant in the room and the profoundly repetitive nature of art in our century – constantly trying to disguise its reliance on the iconoclasts of a century ago.
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