Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Plagiarism = Laziness

In an article about plagiarism for Slate, Meghan O'Rourke cites the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge and tireless essayist Richard Posner, who wrote a book called The Little Book of Plagiarism. According to Posner, it's the "cult of originality" we inherited from the Romantics that gave us this fear and hatred for plagiarism. Add the current market economy and we have both more copying and more disgust with the copying.

But think about this in terms of contemporary art. Here's O'Rourke:
"Posner may be right to connect our obsession with plagiarism to the rise of a market economy that values individualism in cultural works. But perhaps it also stems from a collision of contemporary ideas about what accomplishment really is: the result of effortless gifts, or the fruition of hard labor? Americans are fond of the myth of hard work. As preternaturally gifted distance runner Steve Prefontaine puts it in the 1998 biopic Without Limits, "Talent is a myth." And recent studies have shown that the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is based in quantifiable fact: The top tier of 20-year-old violinists, it turns out, practiced on average 2,500 hours more than violinists the next rank down. Yet contemporary culture pays quite a lot of lip service to the myth of innate talent, wildly overestimating, for instance, the contributions of single employees to companies."
That idea about work is important to us in this country, as important as our notion of individuality. Add to this equation huge amounts of money, the sort of sums that an artist like Urs Fischer can command for a lousy pack of cigarettes on a string ($160,000.00), and we have a recipe for extreme disgust. O'Rourke again:
"What really bothers us about plagiarism isn't the notion of influence itself, but the notion that a piece of writing has been effortless for the thief in question. Instead of worrying whether writers who borrow from other artists are fakers, perhaps we should be asking if they're slackers. It might make it easier to decide which kinds of influence to condone and which to condemn."
Yes, slackers. That's the problem. It's true -- what rankles me most about the pack of cigarettes on a string is that it's lazy. Perhaps I could be convinced to see the beauty in this quietly hovering trash, like the video of the plastic bag in the wind in the movie American Beauty, but I suddenly feel like I've been taken advantage of when I learn how much money Fischer made.

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