Artists often draw inspiration from other sources. Musicians sample songs. Painters recreate existing masterpieces. Kenneth Goldsmith believes writers should catch-up with other mediums and embrace plagiarism in their work. Brooke talks with Goldsmith, MoMA’s new Poet Laureate, about how he plagiarizes in his own poetry and asks if appropriation is something best left in the art world.
Quartetto d'archi dell'orchestra sinfonica de Milano Giuseppe Verdi – Tomorrow Never Knows
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth Goldsmith was selected as the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate this spring. He’s also a plagiarist. Most of his poetry is derived from transcriptions, copies and collages of existing works. For instance, he retyped an entire edition of the New York Times to create his book, Day. He’s also the author of a book about his views and process, called Uncreative Writing. That’s become the genesis for classes he's taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. He demands that his students surrender any attempt to creativity and assigns them texts to copy, and sometimes defend.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: The choices that we make are as expressive of ourselves as any kind of personal narrative we might do about our family or growing up. We’ve just never been taught to value those choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, each semester the students are told to purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: And then they have to get up and present it as if they wrote it, convincingly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the purpose of that assignment?
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Well, I'm of the feeling that the idea of being a contemporary writer is making your way through this morass of information. There’s so much information out there already, that really one need not create any more.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then why copy, why transcribe? Why bother to do any of that?
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: The point is actually in pointing. You look at a blog like Boing Boing, they don’t make anything. They point. Being pointed at by Boing Boing far outweighs the thing at which they’re pointing. So making has become secondary to pointing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that literature is in a rut, that it tends to hit the same note again and again, unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: You know, if it's not dealing with distribution, if it’s not dealing with replication, if it's not dealing with copyright, in a weird way it's not being contemporary. These really are the issues of our time, and they’re at stake everywhere you look. It's already a done deal in music and sampling. It's been a done deal for 100 years in visual art, with the advent of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades. Every other place in culture has sort of moved past these kinds of stagnant ideas of originality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you want to create this kind of plagiaristic aesthetic for text. What's the big challenge?
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: I feel that one of the reasons that visual art has been able to take a different turn was because 150 years ago it met the camera, and the camera forced painting to go abstract, take on all these extra ideas, other than simple representation. There was a machine that did it better. This happened in music, with the sampler and with magnetic tape. And suddenly, it's happening now in literature with the internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are intellectual property laws. How do you instruct your students to handle that issue?
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: A lot of this is economy based. The economy of poetry is a pretty utopian open economy, ‘cause there is no economics around it. Everybody says poetry doesn't matter but actually, poetry really does matter because one can test extreme utopian aesthetic ideals without any repercussion whatsoever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because you’re an artsy-fartsy poet who lives in an ethereal world. In a world where content have monetary value, these aesthetics cannot be applied without running into the law. So you send your students out there saying, go ahead, make your art, just make sure you won't make any money off of it.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Well, I – you know, I think that’s their generation’s challenge. But what it does is it reimagines and re-envisions what being creative is, another tool that they can use as they go out into the world as writers. And somebody said, you know what, it’s actually okay to use that tool. Examples of, of James Joyce in Ulysses patch writing the entire Ithaca chapter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m not sure what patch writing is.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: Patch writing is what students do all the time, taking several sources and stringing them together, adding a few connecting words to make it all seem unique. My students are so good at patch writing and plagiarism, but it's always done on the down low. The question is in, in my classes how can we make your technique a little bit better?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, I would love to give listeners an example but what they would just hear is something that, absent its framing, would have little content.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: You’re – you’re wrong there. The voice hydrates the driest of texts. At the White House, I did a, a little set about the Brooklyn Bridge, and I read a short excerpt from Whitman's “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and then Hart Crane’s modernist 1930s poem, “The Bridge, and then I finished up with some traffic reports, that included The Bridge as a bit player, from my book, “Traffic.”
Now, of course, the President and the First Lady were there, and there were Democratic Party donors and arts administrators and senators, and the like. And they kind of quietly sat through the Whitman and they sat through the Crane, you know, the real poetry. But when it came to the traffic reports, the whole room jumped! It was language that they could recognize. It was, it was, you know, their language. The most avant-garde move was the one that excited them the most.
John Cage said, you know, music is all around us, if only we had the ears to hear it. And I’ll actually say the same thing, poetry is all around us, if we only had the – eyes to see it and identify it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth, thank you very much.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kenneth Goldsmith is the Museum of Modern Art’s Poet Laureate –
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- and the author of the forthcoming “Seven American Deaths and Disasters.” Let's hear some – plagiarism.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: 12:01: Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now, big delays in the Holland Tunnel, either way, with roadwork. Only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about at least 20 to 30 minutes’ worth of traffic away. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Tunnel not great back to Jersey but still your best option, and the GW Bridge, 30 to 40 minute delays, and that's just going into town, lower level closed, upper level, all you get. Then back to New Jersey, every approach is fouled up, the West Side Highway from the 150s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because we were doing this hour on ownership, I looked up the word “property” in the Thesaurus. I love the Thesaurus because it breaks down the synonyms of a word into groups, like hues on a big color wheel. It turns out that the synonyms for “property” essentially fall into two color families. Predictably, the first are words related to possession, as in ownership, title, claim, stake. The second are words that link property to the nature of a thing, as in aura, effect, flavor, feeling or character, quality, virtue or quirk.
Now, here’s the interesting thing: The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the second meaning actually emerged first. Eight hundred years ago or so, property’s meaning was pretty much related to the essential nature of something, as in it’s the property of water to conform to the shape of the vessel it’s in. The fact is property didn’t come to mean possession until the 17th century. But the link between the two meanings is clear. Something that’s special, something that is one’s own is something we possess.
Now our world runs on property. As the founders understood, it’s a powerful engine of creativity that benefits us all. But, like water, the essential nature of property must ultimately conform to the vessel it’s one. Once we dwelled in a brick-and-mortar world. Now, as poet Kenneth Goldsmith observed, we swim in a digital ocean. The only certainty is that in such a fluid situation, 20 years hence, property will not mean what it means today.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Alexandra Hall, Ravenna Koenig and Khrista Rypl. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rick Kwan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts and read our fabulous blog at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and I really advise you to – there’s very good stuff there. And, of course, you can e-mail us at email@example.com. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.