10/11/2011 05:09 pm ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

All Along the Art Tower

"Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth..."
But at least they didn't steal Bob Dylan's art. Too bad the same can't
be said for Dylan when it came to liberating other artists' work.
Since a show of his paintings recently opened at Manhattan's Gagosian
Gallery, it's come to the art world's attention that these pictures
may not be on the up and up.

The show in question is simply called "The Asia Series."
Based on the musician's recent trip to the Far East, the work was
billed as a reflection on what he saw and felt. However, the imagery
in the actual paintings has been directly linked to the work of
various photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson. Truth be
known, Dylan's pictures reproduce the photos verbatim. This is not
what the art experience is supposed to be about.

While some may claim his usage of photographs can be
linked to the Photorealist movement, Dylan is cutting corners. During
the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new art movement was launched;
Photorealism. Artists, including Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and
Charles Bell, relied on photographs as springboards to create their
paintings. But these Photorealists took their own photographs. So in
essence, even though these artists "copied" photographs, they were
still capturing their initial vision. In Estes's case, he focused on
the urban landscape and how reflections, which appeared in storefront
windows, twisted and distorted themselves into highly abstract
compositions. Charles Bell painted close-ups of gumball machines and
their contents; multi-color spheres interspersed with the occasional
toy surprise. Chuck Close mined facial portraiture, exposing with
excruciating detail the sitter's pores, freckles, and wrinkles. These
works provided the viewer with a fresh look at the visual world that
surrounds us. Great art gets you to view your environment in new ways.
When that occurs, you feel alive.

What Bob Dylan did was take someone else's photograph,
copy the imagery onto a canvas, and then pass it off as a genuine
creative gesture. Yes, in theory, Dylan did bring some of himself to
the work by the physical act of painting the pictures. Still, there's
nothing authentic about not thinking for yourself. Whether it was
laziness or lack of confidence in his ability to crossover from one
creative field to another, a la Julian Schnabel, Dylan couldn't come
up with his own iconography.

It's hard to make good art. Works of art, that survive the
test of time, are made by painters who perfect their craft over
decades and have something original to say that reflects their life
experiences and the times they live in. At the end of the day, it's
about fabricating work that has a soul. Until Bob Dylan is prepared to
put the same effort into his painting, that he has put into his
indisputably brilliant music, better that he stick to his
song-writing. As he once so famously stated, "To live outside the law,
you must be honest."

Richard Polsky is the author of the forthcoming book The Art Prophets,
which includes a chapter on Photorealism, to be released by Other
Press on October 25th.