A musical based on a book, based on another book that was turned into two musicals - is there nothing new under the sun?
Last week was a difficult one for fans of classic rock. Bob Dylan was all over the news for reportedly lifting lines from a 1991 Japanese book and inserting them into the lyrics of a song on his critically acclaimed 2001 album "Love and Theft" (leading to speculation that the CD's title was intentionally ironic). And Paul McCartney conceded that the tune "Yesterday," one of the most popular pop ballads of all time, may have been based on McCartney's subconscious borrowing from an old Nat King Cole song called "Answer Me."Skip to next paragraph
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Is nothing new under the sun? some critics are asking (properly attributing that phrase to the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, of course). Author Joan Didion pointed out in a 1996 speech that when she arrived at college "it was immediately impressed on me that all the novels necessary had already been written."
Does that suggest we're living in unimaginative times in which lazy artists simply mimic the past or, worse, slip into plagiarism?
A quick scan of popular culture could suggest that. The June and July blockbuster movies are all sequels or reworkings of existing material. Even reality TV, which some saw as at least a breath of fresh air on the tube, has been smothered by a bland blob of imitators. And perhaps the most often cited suspects are rap and hip-hop artists, who "sample" and mix brief snatches of music or other sounds, raising fundamental issues of copyright and ownership.
Some observers point out that all this "referencing" of past works is just part of the post-modernist era we've been living in for decades, in which the very notions of originality and authenticity are questioned.
So-called "appropriation" art can be seen in everything from Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans back to Marcel Duchamp's early 20th-century idea of "ready-made" art - essentially turning the artist into one who does nothing more than select as art objects that already exist. Even Shakespeare, it's often pointed out, stole his plots from earlier works.Some also argue that "in a world dominated by technology and the mass media, culture inevitably becomes superficial and self-referential," as the "Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Art" puts it.
So what's different now?
It may be the degree to which it's happening. A story like "The Wizard of Oz" begins as a book, is turned into an even more memorable movie, then a Broadway musical and another movie ("The Wiz"), then transmuted into a revisionist book (Gregory Maguire's "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West"), which in turn is made into another Broadway show ("Wicked") debuting this October. In this case, the source material may be rich enough to be constantly worked over. But how does that explain "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," a second movie based on a forgettable TV series, or this month's latest Lara Croft big-screen adventure, a sequel of a movie from a video game?
Modern Americans are so inundated with cultural images that they may not even be aware when they're piggy-backing on the past.
"We seem to like to surf over the past and pull up interesting elements and recombine them in interesting ways," says Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who teaches about the place of art in society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "It's that cherry picking - a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And a lot of that is made possible by technology."
Just as the invention of radio, TV, and film created new art forms in the early 20th century, technologies such as the Internet are opening up new ways to draw on existing work and play with it. For example, in the eight years since Pixar debuted "Toy Story," computer animation has all but eclipsed the hand-drawn form at the multiplex.
No one is suggesting that nothing original is going on today. But much of it occurs away from the spotlight of mass media. The artist Matthew Barney won raves this spring for the latest of his fantastic "Cremaster" films that defy genres, to cite just one example.
One distinction cultural observers make is between creativity - which they see in abundance - and originality. Take two of last year's Oscar nominees. "The Hours," based on the prize-winning book by Michael Cunningham, springboards off Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." The plot follows three women - Woolf herself, a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway, and a housewife reading the novel - throughout the course of one day. And no one could accuse Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"), who wrote his writer's block directly into his adaptation of Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," of a lack of imagination.
Although the line between bald imitation and real imagination may not be easy to draw, Ivey says, it's very much like defining pornography: "You know it when you see it," he says. "You know plagiarism when you see it, and you know creative reworking when you see it."