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By Ryan

Note: This is the second in a series of columns inspired by the excellent Reality Hunger by David Shields.  You should read it.


My first real, honest-to-goodness attempt at painting took the form of recreating the cover art from Pavement’s Wowee Zowee.  On a thirty-six-inch, square canvas, I painstakingly drew the image in pencil before painting with acrylics, which I still use despite their pedestrian reputation in the painting community.  It wasn’t until after I had completed the painting and, having stared at the album cover for hours, realized that I was painting a painting.  The now-familiar postmodern tradition: art about art.


The cover art for Wowee Zowee is by Brooklyn artist Steve Keene.  Steve says, “I want buying my paintings to be like buying a CD: it’s cheap, it’s art and it changes your life, but the object has no status.  Musicians create something for the moment, something with no boundaries and that kind of expansiveness is what I want to come across in my work.”  To this end, much of Keene’s work is itself a reproduction of art, most notably album covers.


Wowee Zowee looks a lot like Guru Guru’s Känguru.


I met Keene at his workspace last winter, where I stole three pieces from him for seven dollars.  Keene recalled the Pavement piece and told me about Bryan Charles, a writer who did the 33 1/3 on Wowee Zowee. Seems Charles had contacted him about the iconic cover, and Keene had dug through his materials to find the source photo he had based it on.  He told me that it came from a magazine, but he can’t recall which one.  When I told him that I had painted his painting (of a photograph), he seemed indifferent, but nice.  Art about art is old news.


Noted postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard developed the idea of simulacrum in four ways: a basic reflection of reality, a perversion of reality, a pretense of reality, and total simulacrum which represents no reality.  A photo, a painting, a painting of something that could exist, a painting of a photo that does not exist.  Copy of a copy.


When Richard Prince photographed cigarette ads featuring cowboys and various scenes from the American West, he challenged the notion of what constitutes consideration as art and what is merely a copyright violation.  According to U.S. Copyright law, a person may use another’s creation (i.e. photograph) without permission if he or she transforms it in some meaningful way.  So when Prince got away with copying advertisements, he opened the door for Thomas Struth to photograph people viewing art in museum, and allowed Andreas Gursky to photograph a Van Gogh painting and sell it as his own work.


By copying Struth’s museum photo and Gursky’s photo of a Van Gogh painting in his own work, artist (and friend) Alexander Bussey joins the conversation with photos that force the viewer to question whether he is just copying Crewdson, Gursky, Struth, or if he is genuinely creating his own art.


Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills are portraits of the artist that loosely resemble films.  Some are based on real films, others are vague recreations of thing Sherman might have seen in foreign films or B-movies.


Reality Hunger, by David Shields, is a call to arms for writers (and other artists) to work more like hip-hop artists: make it short, snappy, concise, and steal most of the good stuff from someone else.  Most (over half) of Reality Hunger is comprised of quotes and other written work by other writers.  Shields credits them only by force of his publisher, though he does instruct the reader to take a pair of scissors to the purposely-hard-to-read citations.


If all we do is copy, won’t we run out of original work?  Ah, but hasn’t this already happened?


Marcus Aurelius said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  This was in the 100’s.


Variously attributed to both T.S. Elliot as “Good poets borrow, great poets steal,” and Picasso as “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” it is unlikely that either ever said those words, and the source of the original quote remains, a bit ironically, unknown.