In 1889, Lewis Carroll wrote that authors of the future would no longer ask themselves “What book shall I write?” but, “Which book shall I write?” Fifty years later, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published his classic story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a fictional review of one man’s attempt to literally re-write—line-by-line and in Cervantes’ 17th century Spanish—Don Quixote.
Appropriation and outright theft have, of course, always played a role in the creation of all manner of art, but the lines between original work and imitation, or truth and fabrication, have never been more fluid.
Nathan Ihara, writing over at MobyLives, suggests that 2010 represented “a tipping point when it comes to our concept of originality, art, and theft.” Ihara’s piece borrows its title—“To live outside the law you must be honest”—from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a line that, as Jonathan Lethem has pointed out, Dylan clipped from The Lineup, a 1958 film noir. The same Dylan whose 2001 album “Love and Theft” took its own title from Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.
You could certainly argue that the mash-up is—along with zombies and vampires—sort of a perfect zeitgeist metaphor for our cultural present, and Ihara both makes that case nicely (with assists to Lethem, and David Shields’ recent appropriation manifesto, Reality Hunger) and raises the compelling question of where or when we should draw the line between sampling and stealing.