Amy Bell

Is it possible to author something created by another?

See Duchamp’s Fountain.
And various other examples…

At the risk of coming off a little churlish, the possibility of authoring something created by another seems so obvious that this strikes me as something of a moot point. Not only is it possible, but the idea of authoring something created by another seems so commonplace it hardly crosses my mind to question whether it might be done or not. It seems ever since there has been art, the artist has been busy with finding, incorporating, framing, reframing, claiming, renaming and generally delighting him/herself either in collaboration or independently with ideas and material, effectively with ‘work’ created by other people or even by forces of nature. This is in essence a creative act.  Perhaps ever since Duchamp the art world has been explicitly conscious of this facet of the artistic endeavour, and even more so in a post-modern period obsessed with intertextuality, in-jokes and irony. Clearly this, along with Barthes’ Death of the Author, has to some minds problematised the notion of the author as sole, heroic source and craftsman of a unique art object, a romantic idea which still lingers in the public imagination and still rankles many artists. The typical leading question resulting from such a line of thought goes something like: if Damien Hirst didn’t actually draw his own dots, is he somehow less of an author of his work? Answer: no. I would add to that answer in this particular context of you asking me, a fellow artist, to write about this topic: no, obviously. I add the ‘obviously’ as I would assume that between us we can take for granted this point of view of what it is to be an artist and what it is to make or create, that in reimagining the work of another one makes a creative act, makes art. Whether one does it well is another question…

If I automatically take it for granted that we share the assumption that it is possible to author something created by another, why then do you ask me? It feels like something of a needless question. But perhaps taking anything for granted is dangerous in the field of art making. Perhaps I am then invited to elaborate on why or how it is I/we can take this for granted, which seems to send me towards the realms of art history or theory I feel ill-qualified to attempt to negotiate in writing to you. It might be more fruitful to read a book than read my underdeveloped musings on this. I also, frankly, feel rather unenthusiastic about writing something like that. As a maker myself I am not so much questioning whether it is possible to author something created by another, but how it might be possible and what the implications of such an undertaking might be.

This then opens up a cluster of further questions, some of which I’ll list below. However I think it is worth pointing out that for me, these questions only really become interesting when we begin to look at a particular scenario or a particular project, which I can’t do here since I don’t know more than some very cursory details about what you are doing. So in fact me writing this response is maybe a way of you opening out your very particular concerns to a more general thought pool, but since I am not fond of thinking in generalisations I find my mind reaching after what the particular concerns of your project are in my writing. In this way together we make a loop of opening and closing the ideas. It makes me wonder how useful the general might be when embroiled in a very particular artistic process… I digress…

So assuming ‘yes’ to your original question, I was prompted to ask the following questions, which I propose to you to ask yourselves or to give back to me or to someone else, if you like. There are probably many others, but these are what I could think of today.

If one authors something created by another:

  • What, if any, are the author’s responsibilities towards the ‘original’ maker?

  • Should credit be given and if so, how?

  • What is at the stake if the ‘original’ maker is dead, alive and still using the material, aware or unaware of his/her work being (re)used, colluding in the new work?

  • Does it matter that the audience know that parts of the work have originated elsewhere?

  • What happens if the ‘original’ material is already present in an artistic milieu? What if it is already famous? What if it is now considered art for the first time? How might it cross borders of genre, context, language?

  • Do you use the material or existing work faithfully, ironically, with ignorance, with hatred with arrogance, with love?

  • Who owns a work like this? At what point, if ever, does someone else’s work become your work?

  • Did the ‘original’ maker also make use of someone else’s work, are there layers of labour?

  • How does the work borrowed or referenced sit in a new context? What does a new frame add or take away?

  • Why do use this work?

  • Is there a sense of guilt, naughtiness, excitement, pleasure in using or incorporating someone else’s work?

Amy is a London based dancer and choreographer.