PRINT October 1985


The original sin.

“QUOTATION,” “APPROPRIATION,” “IMAGE-SCAVENGING,” “age of simulacra”. . . . For several years now these words have filled the air as we have tried to explain to ourselves what has been happening in recent art. They are such complex words. They provoke a certain nostalgia for the clear brightness of slang. Sometimes, when thinking about quotational art, I call such works “After Art”—works that are openly after other pieces. And then I think, but hey, isn’t a French term de rigeur, and just imagine—in contrast to art nouveau, art passé. Then again, as things have been going lately we may soon be reading about the “postneo”: the stuff that comes after the idea of the new has gotten old. The term one doesn’t hear so much anymore is “original.” Not long ago it was a whole credo, this word, a whole way of approaching life. But things have gotten, funny; we’ve begun to wonder what it might mean.

The culture around us has raised the question by itself. The Four Lassies, for example, used to be a secret—the fact that four different dogs were used on camera (one to play with kids, one to leap ravines, one to. bring down bandits, and so on). In fact, there were also lots of lesser Lassies, for distant shots, dangerous shots, and such. So where was Lassie, the real, the original Lassie? And how could you tell?

Aristotle had a great argument called the Third Man that relates to the Four Lassies. It goes like this: how can I know that something is an original unless I have another original to compare it to? And how do I know that that one is an original without still another to compare it to? And so on, forever. The original is dissolved in an infinite regress, for the idea of the original is bound to the idea of the finite. If reality is infinitely complex, then every copy is based on a model that is itself a copy of another model, and so on, forever; there is no original but there are infinite copies of it, like a snowstorm of snowflakes all different and all the same. One function of the idea of the original is to close off a proliferating series, to provide a final term that will keep it finite and manageable, because we need finite series on which to make our projections of meaning and value. This is why Thomas Aquinas defined god as the “Necessary Being”: God, the original’s Original, was necessary to cap off the string of things. to put a lid on it—to keep it under control. This is what the Platonism of our cultural heritage has been all about for so long.

Can we even imagine what it would be like to live in a culture that does not distinguish between original and copy that does not understand the “original brightness”: as Milton called it, that we cast around our chosen object? Being who we are, the world seems dim without that brightness. Yet many cultures have attributed to the copy the same eternal brightness that we have long attributed to the original. The endless rows of sculpted rams before the temples at Luxor and Karnak are only right insofar as they are identical. From that point of view, an original means a monstrosity. Contemporary Japan also shows in various ways a respect for the autonomy of the copy.

Some say that we ourselves are entering an age when the idea of the original will become increasingly meaningless, an age in which there are no originals, only copies: only paintings of postcards of paintings; Elvis imitators without an Elvis; identical gas stations, convenience stores, and freeways streaming from some unseen source like snowflakes. What is happening is some fundamental change in our beliefs, some preparation for infinity some loosening of control over the meanings of our own lives.

One of the great distinctions of our time is that the proliferation of images and replicas of images has come to be felt as a part of nature—the scraps of advertisements, old photos, torn mementoes that fill the gutters like fallen leaves. So, in a sense, by copying found images art has returned to the mimesis of nature. The idea that it was ever really nonmimetic was a fantasy based on the intoxication of the dream of the original. For the original cannot be mimetic. It cannot be just a member of a series; it must stand as the origin of a series, which is to say it must be uncaused. And here we are sniffing toward the essence of the idea. The concept of originality is a way to claim, or to hope, or to wildly imagine, that we can extend ourselves out of the causal web into a charming and free Beyond. This is the real foundation of what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of the original. We breathed that aura so deeply so happily once, when we believed that things were finite.

But now a new picture is forming. Look: the original artist sits, like Napoleon in a contemporary’ s description, “grand, gloomy and peculiar . . . wrapped in the solitude of his own originality.” As he broods upon his creation, around him the twilight fills, as with a gust of leaves, with identical copies of a nonexistent original. From the scattering wind the voice of Walt Whitman is heard:

Let nothing but copies . . . be permitted to exist upon the earth! . . .

Let the daubed portraits of heroes supersede heroes . . .

Let the reflections of things of the world be studied in mirrors . . .

But wait, Walt. Some of us have a question: can there be Elvis imitators without an Elvis? If the original is a myth, then mustn’ t the copy be a myth, too? It seems that we do mean something when we say “original,” and I think what we mean is that the original is the thing we need to free us from the trap the last original left us in. Recently art openly based on imitation has seemed original. Copy and original, it seems, chase each other in the wind, as alike as two leaves, or snowflakes, each preceding and following the other forever. As the simulacra surge openly around us we get more at ease with the idea of infinity and more accepting of the totality of the causal web. The dream of escape from causality that the myth of the original offered was a cul-de-sac. It is within causality, working with it, that freedom, such as it is, is to be found.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Art, Rice University, Houston.