If I were to assume that I’d only ever heard the songs in my iTunes library, I would have heard 15,063 songs—42.6 days of music.  Of course, I’ve heard more than this.  I’ve even listened to some of these songs as many as 95 times.  I write and record music, and my own songs are nested in my library between some of my favorite bands, and some bands whose names elicit only dim memories.  It seems a neat symbol for a terrifying, liberating fact: I cannot account for all the art to which I’ve been exposed, yet it is somewhere in my mind, and when I create, I can never be sure that I am not recreating something I barely remember.

This is a fundamental fact of the digital age.  The wealth of information has educated and oppressed the creator.  Steeped even more deeply than his or her predecessors in media of all types, “originality” has become ever harder to achieve, and failing to achieve it all the easier to discover.  How, then, can the digital artist be original?

In his 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote that the best poet must read widely in order to develop his talent: “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour… the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”  Thus valid artistic talent comes from a deep understanding of what came before.  Harold Bloom presents a similar challenge in “The Anxiety of Influence.”  Neither, clearly, was familiar with Google Books or Spotify.  Were T.S. Eliot cursed with these tools along with this philosophy, he would be single-mindedly wading his way through the 15 million texts on Google Books, and forgetting to write “The Wasteland.”

Jonathan Lethem suggests a new solution to the question of originality in the contemporary age in his “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.”  Rather than promote another avant-garde “with its wearisome killing-the-father imperatives” he calls for “ratifying the ecstasy of influence—and deepening our willingness to understand the commonality and timelessness of the methods and motifs available to artists.”  All texts are “woven entirely with citations…cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony.”  All art in all times has performed this act—Lethem reveals at the end of his essay what he suggests in the subtitle: that his work is itself built out of thinly-veiled thefts.  What makes the digital world different, then, is that it is too difficult now to hold pretense to complete originality.  The past is a constant frame for our online productions, and to succeed as individual, the digital artist must embrace culling heavily from tradition.

Hence Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Girl Talk’s famous mash-up of the Notorious B.I.G.’s self-celebratory “Juicy” with Elton John’s sentimental “Tiny Dancer.”  Both are cathartic appropriations of the digital age.  They gleefully combine the incongruous present with the barely-recognizable past.  In these mash-ups, there is no privileged art, and the anxiety of influence is subverted in a joyous theft.  In so clearly taking from the past, these forms ensure their own originality by beginning from explicit appropriation.  The remix and mash-up are transgressive artistically and, sometimes, legally.  Yet they are undeniably, joyfully, original art in the age of unrepressed influence.

I’ve attached a mash-up I made a few years ago to give a sense of how easy it is to appropriate in this way.  It’s a combination of “Heartbeats” by the Knife, “Paper Planes” by M.I.A., and Jose Gonzalez’s cover of “Heartbeats,” three songs I’ve listened to quite a bit.

Original Post Date April 21, 2012

First, Ben, your mash-up is amazing! I hope you’ve continued to produce works like this.

I really enjoyed reading this post because you addressed how the role of the creator may change now that creation is becoming increasingly difficult to define.  I address this issue in one of my critical responses to this week’s class.

In addition, I appreciate how you bring in the concept of joy and how “unprivileged” art can nonetheless inspire feelings of happiness or even transcendence. There is undoubtedly something magical about the surprising compatibility between “Juicy” and “Tiny Dancer”. Perhaps instead of examining the process of creation, we should look at its outputs and effects (for ex: the spreading of joy) to help us fine tune our definitions of art and artists.