Art cannot be created or destroyed — only remixed. In a convincing talk from TEDGlobal 2012, director Kirby Ferguson explores the challenges of originality and freshness in a world where creativity takes root in what has come before. Without previous inventions we would not have the iPhone, the Model T Ford, Star Wars, Warhol’s soup cans, or the electronic musician Girl Talk. Ferguson highlights that remixing, referencing and reproducing previous innovations allows artists to engage in a cultural dialogue and allows art, technology and society to continue evolving.
What Ferguson calls remixing many call plagiarizing. At the heart of US patent law is the desire to protect intellectual property rights and incentivize individual innovation by protecting it from copycatting. But Ferguson argues that these laws ultimately contradict their own intent to “promote the progress of useful arts,” stifling the root of creativity. The problem, says Ferguson, is that we think of creative works as individual property, rather than content that sits in the public domain.
Creative powerhouses from Mark Twain to Beyoncé to Henry Ford are open about their propensity toward remixing and how they consider referencing others to be integral to their creative process. Below is a series of quotes from a wide variety of artistic innovators explaining what role reworking previous material plays in their creative process. Some have faced legal problems for their work while others consciously engage in remixing to open a dialogue about the images and culture that shape our world.
“My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross. I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.” — Beyoncé, on her video for “Countdown” [New York Times]
“Every spoof gives more power to the original.” — Shepard Fairey [Consumerist]
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.” — Henry Ford [From the book The Business of America]
“A lot of artists are used to their music being reused online and have come to accept and embrace it. You have a generation who go on YouTube and remake and remix music online all the time. They remake and upload songs and videos, and then other people remake the remakes; it just keeps going.” — Girl Talk [New York Times]
“The words are the important thing. Don’t worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune.” — Woody Guthrie [From the book Bob Dylan's Lawyers, a Dark Day in Luzerne County, and Learning to Take Legal Ethics Seriously]
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination … Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it.” – Jim Jarmusch [MovieMaker]
“I had gotten the Jay-Z vocal tracks and wasn’t going to do anything with them. A week or so after that, I was at home in Los Angeles, listening to The Beatles and cleaning up my room. Then it hit me: Oh [bleep], White Album, Black Album. … At one point I saw that I had logged more than two hundred hours … It would have been easy just to slap the vocals over music of the same tempo. But I wanted to match the feel of the tracks, too.” — Danger Mouse, on mashing up Jay-Z and The Beatles’ classic albums into the The Grey Album [New Yorker]
“I jump ‘em from other writers but I arrange ‘em my own way.” — Blind Willie McTell [From the book Bob Dylan in America]
“All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. We are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own.” — Mark Twain [Brainpickings]
Ironically, several more quotes about the impossibility of originality have entered into the quotable cannon and been accepted as fact, even though their original sourcing has been lost somewhere on a dusty bookshelf. Bouncing around the internet, some of these quotes have been remixed along the way, with attributions shifting from Franklin P. Jones to Benjamin Franklin. But in an open source world, it’s the idea — rather than the creator — that really matters.
“Only those with no memory insist on their originality.” — attributed to Coco Chanel
“Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” — attributed to Franklin P. Jones, or Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Edison, depending on who you ask
“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” — attributed to Jean-Luc Godard
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” — attributed to Pablo Picasso
“I go to the past for research. I need to know what came before so I can break the rules.” — attributed to Vera Wang
In this fascinating talk from TEDxKC, “Steal like an artist,” Austin Kleon also talks about the spirit of remixing and argues that creative people are collectors of ideas. He explains how, after publishing his first book, he discovered that his work was very similar to that of Tom Phillips, years before him. Turns out Phillips extended the idea from William S. Burroughs, who extended the idea from painter Brion Gysin, and so on and so on. In fact, the idea went all the way back to the 1760s.
In a project after Kirby Ferguson’s heart, here is a follow-up video to Kleon’s talk by YouTube user Dannyk140, in which he puts his own spin on Kleon’s work. It’s a cool illustration of how ideas spread.
Interested in reading more? Here are a few other assorted links about remixing from around the internet:
- A blithely self-aware opinion video about plagiarizing, which plagiarizes the Wikipedia page on plagiarism. Talk about meta. [The New York Times]
- Check out a beautiful remix of the London subway system by artist Simon Patterson. [The Guardian]
- And read the comic book Bound by Law, a fun take on the legality of remixing. [Duke Law Center for the Study of Public Domain]