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 Wasteland, by 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…?


About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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2 Responses to What Do We Want in Art? Conceptualists? Experimentalists? Plagiarists?

  1. Pingback: Making the Familiar Strange: Is This the Key to Artistic Nirvana…? | The New Southern Gentleman

  2. Pingback: Making the Familiar Strange: Is This the Key to Artistic Nirvana…? | Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

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