American Culture

What do we want in art? Conceptualists? Experimentalists? Plagiarists?

Classifying artists is a thing now…and so is linking T.S. Eliot to John Lennon and Bob Dylan and suggesting there’s a controversy concerning their work being considered plagiarism…

Thoma Stearns Eliot (image courtesy Wikimedia)

A recent piece by University of Chicago economist David Galenson, obviously meant to grab eyeballs for HuffPo, asked the following question: Were T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon masters of allusion – or plagiarists? Galenson, whose theory on artistic creativity has made him something of an academic star, posits that all artists fall into one of two categories: the first group are conceptualists, artists who make innovations to their fields at a young age; the second group Galenson calls experimentalists – these are artists whose innovations develop over a long period of time, refined through, well, experimenting.

It’s an interesting, and certainly an attractive theory of creativity, since it makes classifying an artist a matter of looking at whether the artists did their “best work” early or late in their careers. So since Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby at 29 he’s a conceptualist and since Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at 50 he’s an experimentalist. Easy peasy, right?

Maybe. Maybe not so much. See, there’s that other issue – the one that Galenson discusses in the piece from HuffPo: are the artists he mentions plagiarists?

In the cases cited by Galenson above, Eliot had written the two works on which his reputation is built, Prufrock and Other Observations and The Wastelandby the time he was 34. And both Dylan and Lennon had done their most memorable canon entries by the age of 30. They fit the Galenson profile for conceptualists. As any of us would readily admit, that’s really young. Young artists have a tendency to reflect, brilliantly or merely imitatively, the work of artists who have inspired them. It’s that whole “finding one’s voice” thing being played out.

They’re all also – Eliot, Dylan, Lennon – 20th century artists. That figures into Galenson’s argument because he calls the 20th century the age of “large-scale quotation.” (By “quotation” Galenson means allusion to other works as much as he means literally quoting other works.) Besides Eliot’s The Wasteland, which is way larded with allusions to other works, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” are loaded with allusions. In fact, Galenson goes so far as to suggest that the works of all these artists are loaded with allusions because that’s what conceptualists do – they tend to be artists who build (that ugly word assemblage is floating around in your head right now – get it out) their works by “re-contextualizing” older works. Galenson offers the example of Jean-Luc-Godard’s breakthrough film, Breathless (A Bout de Souffle)It certainly references low budget gangster films and film noir. But no one who has ever watched Breathless is thinking, “Oh, this is just a retread of low budget gangster films.”

What Galenson doesn’t do is absolve Eliot, Dylan and Lennon of plagiarism charges he suggests exist. He merely notes that “It’s likely there will never be a single  resolution of this question….” So we’re left hanging. Were Eliot, Dylan, and Lennon plagiarists, copping lines from other writers? Galenson suggests that there is controversy about these authors.

Or, more likely, he wants to manufacture controversy. The really interesting question is not – are these artists plagiarists? It is – why does Galenson want us to think that people are asking this question…?

3 replies »

  1. I realize that in the Twitter Age it is probably unrealistic to expect anyone to read more than a headline, but if you actually read my post you’ll discover that I was not the one who accused Eliot, Dylan, of plagiarism; this has been done, for decades, by much more illustrious figures, including Robert Frost and Joni Mitchell. My contribution is to explain why the debate will never be resolved, because whether or not large-scale allusion is considered plagiarism depends on whether the reader is conceptual or experimental. Sorry I couldn’t explain this in 140 characters, but I’m resigned to expecting you will not read this comment. (If you think you were left hanging, I would submit that the fault lies not with my article, but with your reading of it.)

    • Professor Galenson,

      First, thank you for commenting upon my piece. It is always nice to have authors respond to pieces that we at Scholars and Rogues occasionally write about their work on cultural matters.

      I actually read your piece a number of times before I wrote about it. I found it rather shocking in its naivete about literary criticism for one who posits himself a cultural theorist. That said, the theory that one might be able to classify “artistic creativity” by looking at an artist’s chronology of production may hold some merit. I look forward to exploring your work in this area further.

      However – you resort to ad hominem attack in your comment about my piece. I suppose this is designed to disenfranchise my opinion? I am a professor of writing and English at a state university and a fellow academic. I have no idea if you read my piece. If you did, you would realize that my reading raises a legitimate question about the motives behind your explanation offered on this “debate” – which is not going on, actually, in any serious way in academe, to my knowledge.

      The complainers that you list – Williams, Cummings, Frost – are not surprising – whether one classifies them as conceptualists or experimentalists. Eliot was enormously popular and successful – his poetry readings – let me repeat that – POETRY READINGS – actually filled stadiums. Other poets, even highly esteemed ones like Williams, Cummings and Frost, might have other agendas that were motivating their comments about Eliot. This might well have been about money. You’re an economist – I’m sure you get that, right? But I saw nothing in your article that even suggested that there might be other motivations for their criticisms/aspersions about Eliot’s “plagiarism.” If one knows the work of these three “critics” of Eliot, one also knows that the style and subject matter of these three poets is extraordinarily different from Eliot’s. And it is something of a truism of literary criticism that artists often make very poor critics.

      And Joni Mitchell, whose work I love, has many times complained about the “boys club” – and about the fact that she felt that her own talent was not sufficiently appreciated compared to male musicians – such as Lennon and Dylan. So might there have been a feminist bias coloring any complaints she leveled at those two other icons of the rock era?

      These are important questions, Professor Galenson. And you didn’t answer them. They could have been easily confirmed or dismissed. And answering them would have given your explanation even more resonance and gravitas. Separating serious, sincere criticism of one artist’s methods by another from carping about a fellow artist’s methods based on jealousy or that chestnut “artistic differences” should be an important element in applying rigor to one’s theory, shouldn’t it?

      We are both educators. As such, we offer each other critiques. My critique of your piece is that in it you suggested controversy exists where it does not. That is mis-educating because, intentionally or not, it is misleading. This is especially concerning when one is writing in a public forum such as at HuffPo or at S&R where the audience will not be uniformly scholarly and skeptical. I accept that your intentions were the best – but I think you may have fallen short in achieving them.

      Thank you for an interesting piece, a fascinating theory, and for taking the time to comment.

  2. A long answer, but unnecessarily so – muddying the waters, perhaps. There is a debate – among artists, not in academe, as you irrelevantly say – and I submit that I have resolved it. But you seem more interested in creating controversy than in resolving it.