News Column

Comment: Under the influence: The story of art is one of homages and remakes. Contemporary critics should take a step back

May 31, 2014

Jonathan Jones

'Good artists copy; great artists steal," said Pablo Picasso. Or at least, he gets the credit for saying it. Perhaps he pinched the words from Oscar Wilde. For there truly is nothing new under the sun, or not entirely new, anyway. Originality does not burst from an artist's head like an alien entity, but is a subtle game of variations and transformations out of which, once in a while, comes the shudder of true artistic surprise.

A group of art intellectuals who have questioned the originality of a performance to be staged by Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine Gallery has strayed into very silly territory. They are wrong about the very nature of art, and its history. This is bizarre, because the people making the fuss are professional art historians. They insist Abramovic should acknowledge a previous work, by the American artist Mary Ellen Carroll, which they say has a prior claim to her chosen theme. In a surreal twist, that theme happens to be "nothing".

Before we ponder who owns the concept of nothing, let's take a detour to the dusty era of art prior to 1960. Because acquaintance with the old masters reveals that art has always been an exchange of ideas in which influence is not just omnipresent but proudly accepted. The story of art is one of homages, remakes, rivalrous borrowings.

Rembrandt's Self Portrait at the Age of 34 in London'sNational Gallery could hardly be a more personal work. The artist confronts himself in the mirror, adopts a pose, and depicts it. As acts of intense self-scrutiny, Rembrandt's self-portraits are as radical as any piece of performance art. Yet Rembrandt is deliberately copying the pose of a portrait of a man in blue by Titian: he is squaring up to Titian as an influence by literally restaging one of his portraits.

This kind of assimilation of models is fundamental to great art, from Titian finishing works by his own influences Bellini and Giorgione to Manet turning Titian's Venus of Urbino into his own provocative nude Olympia. Stealing is how art happens. Picasso, self-pro- claimed thief that he was, painted his own versions of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe and Las Meninas by Velazquez.

What is originality in performance art? It seems to be inseparable from your own person, your own life. Abramovic claims to be original because of who she is - it is she, and no one else, who sits gazing into people's eyes at New York'sMuseum of Modern Art in one of her acclaimed shows. In fact, she has done a series of performances in which she restaged classic works by other artists in her own idiom - as herself, as Marina Abramovic. She explicitly regards originality as lying in the texture of her performances, their lived experience.

Who was the first artist to confront nothing? Perhaps it was Kazimir Malevich when he painted The Black Square in 1915, or Richard Huelsenbeck when he banged a nihilistic "Dada drum" at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, or Marcel Duchamp when he exhibited that urinal in 1917. Art has been flirting with nihilism for at least a century now. If you want to accuse Abramovic of a lack of originality, you would have to survey all the past icons of nothingness, from the Rothko Chapel in Houston to The Lights Going On and Off at the Tate.

Behind this row lurks a deeper anxiety. As you can see from the dates above, the roots of today's most radical art lie in the first world war. Dada is about to celebrate its centenary. The entire edifice of contemporary art is built on the idea of total revolution, of things so new and challenging they are like a diamond bullet in your head. Yet it's all been done before. Originality has always been a complex phenomenon, and the more interesting and valid point those art historians could have made - rather than focusing on the individual, on Abramovic - is that advanced art in the 21st century now lives off the past in a way that is unhealthy, like some dead Byzantine culture which, paradoxically, worships the new. Art today is perpetually restaging ideas first enunciated in the 1960s or even the 1910s.

Best to keep quiet about originality and influence, art world, lest you draw attention to that 100-year-old Dada elephant in the room and the profoundly repetitive nature of art in our century - constantly trying to disguise its reliance on the iconoclasts of a century ago.

Jonathan Jones writes on art for

the Guardian

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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