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."
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."
So how can an artist tell when he is really creating and not just imitating?
Novelist Maguire says it's "when you get the first sentence that makes you want to read it again, instead of wanting to make you throw up. Maybe that's a matter of when you have finally digested the material enough that you can speak it in your own voice, without fear of moral compromise for 'lifting,' or without fear of boring yourself because it's exactly what you've already heard."
Mr. Maguire has seen both sides of artistic borrowing. He has adapted well-known children's stories like "Cinderella" ("Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister") and "The Wizard of Oz" ("Wicked") into his own novels, changing the point of view of the stories and using them as meditations on concepts like beauty and evil. In turn, his own work has been adapted: "Confessions" became a TV movie two seasons ago, and "Wicked" will be transformed into a Broadway musical this October.
"Much of the material I created was the result of walking in the garden of somebody else's creative work," says Maguire in a phone interview. His upcoming "Mirror, Mirror" sets Snow White in Renaissance Italy.
So it seems only natural for him "not to be protective of [his own work] as if it were sacrosanct, which I really don't believe it is."
He finds it rewarding, he says, "to think that other people might dream about [his novels]; children in classrooms might write alternative endings; composers might be inspired to set part of it to music. It makes the work, in retrospect, seem that much more valid if it can prompt and seed other projects."
Playwright David Henry Hwang has deconstructed Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly" into the Broadway hit "M. Butterfly" and more recently updated the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."
"The more I think about it, the more I start to think that even my so-called 'original' plays tend to be derived from other sources," Mr. Hwang said in a recent phone interview. "With almost all of my original works, I can tell you what the sources are for them, even when in some cases it's not immediately obvious."
He likes to jump off from existing material, he says, because "our lives are informed by the mythologies and the stories we grow up with. One big subject in my work is identity. And I feel like a lot of our identity and our perceptions of self are constructions or reconstructions of stories that exist in the culture: myths, archetypes. It seems to me to make sense to tell stories that I want to tell through stories that already exist."
Jazz and folk music have long traditions of artists building on the work of those who have gone before them, points out Anthony M. Kelley, who teaches music composition at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
"Musical borrowing and derivation is an age-old practice that existed in every society since music began," Professor Kelley says in an e-mail.
Because works of art in today's society have monetary value, that tradition has changed to one where ownership becomes important. He once served as an expert witness in a case of a hip-hop artist accused of "stealing" musical material.
"It became very clear," he says, both to him and many attorneys involved, "that there is also a balance to be found" between the rights of the originator and the rights of other artists to piggyback on that work.
The trick for the artist is to use source material without succumbing to it, author Maguire says, to recognize when you are in the presence of work that "has such a magnetic pull" that it's going to bury your own voice.
In his early 20s, Maguire read eight novels in a row by William Faulkner.
"For about two years, I wrote like Faulkner" - though not as well, he says. "His power was so strong that it actually corrupted my power to produce. And now I'm aware of that."
Even as a mature writer today, he still feels the need "to pay attention to when I might not just be making an homage by intention but might be stealing or unintentionally cribbing from somebody."
Maguire says that in his experience, an absolutely new artistic idea is rare. "I've never met anybody who's had an original idea," he says flatly, taking perhaps a very strict definition of "original."
That doesn't mean that work can't have some degree of originality. His own "Wicked," he says, came about because of his interest in the concept of evil and the function that scapegoats have in society. For awhile, he contemplated using the life of Adolf Hitler as the way to tell his story, but decided against it.
"When I settled on the Wicked Witch of the West, I felt perhaps my only moment of brainstorm that I will have in this lifetime," he says. Everyone thought they knew who the Wicked Witch of the West was, but no one really "knew anything about her."