Bob Dylan's Not Really a Plagiarist (He's a Conceptual Artist)

07/15/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2011

I know this is tardy; I really have to start keeping up with my reading. But I did want to explain something. Last year, Joni Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times that Bob Dylan was a plagiarist -- not just his songs, but his name, his voice, "Everything about Bob is a deception." This caused a lot of commotion, and some hard feelings, but it was really just a misunderstanding.

Mitchell is of course correct that Dylan has always freely helped himself to bits and pieces of earlier singers', and poets', work. But he's not alone: this is what conceptual innovators do. Not just in music, but in all arts. Conceptual innovators make their art by creating syntheses of earlier work in their disciplines.

Examples? Let me count the ways. Pablo Picasso's greatest innovation, Cubism, was made from a bizarre combination of Cézanne's late style, African masks, and Cycladic sculptures. What it wasn't based on was Picasso's own vision: he famously declared that "I paint what I think, not what I see." The critic Peter Wollen wrote that Jean-Luc Godard "treated Hollywood as a kind of conceptual property store from which he could serendipitously loot ideas for scenes, shots, and moods," and Godard had no problem with that, remarking that "It's very good to steal things. Bertolt Brecht said art is made from plagiarism." Damien Hirst told an interviewer that he and his fellow art students eliminated their qualms about plagiarism by borrowing not from one predecessor, but from many: "everyone at Goldsmiths believed that rather than avoiding taking directly, we could take from everybody... It was just getting all these influences and piling them together into our own thing."

Most artists haven't spent much time or effort justifying these practices, but a few have. T.S. Eliot did this at great length. The critic Edmund Wilson wondered aloud why Eliot quoted or imitated at least 35 other writers in The Waste Land, and the poet William Carlos Williams was less polite, calling Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound plagiarists for their constant cribbing from earlier poets -- "Men content with the connotations of their masters." Eliot tried to explain: he was serious when he wrote that "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least different." He constructed an elaborate theory to justify his practice of recycling earlier art, contending that great poets work in a tradition: "the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order." William Carlos Williams, of course, was not buying this: he was an experimental poet, so he believed that real art expressed the poet's own perceptions. To Williams, "simultaneous" was just a tactful word for "plagiarism."

So when Bob Dylan mimicked not only Woody Guthrie's music, but also his speech patterns, he didn't consider it plagiarism: he was creating a persona, which Eliot and Pound considered the mark of the true artist. When Dylan was accused of dishonesty in 1963, for the enormous discrepancies between his persona and his actual history, his response -- "I am my words" -- was simply a less pompous version of Eliot's claim that "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

From the point of view of an experimental artist, like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan is a plagiarist; but from the vantage point of a conceptual artist, like Bruce Springsteen, Dylan is just making art. These are two distinct aesthetics, and they will never be reconciled. The real point here is that this is nothing new. Conceptual innovators from Picasso and Eliot to Warhol and Hirst have been slammed by experimental artists as inauthentic and insincere, even as they have been hailed as great innovators by their conceptual peers. The tension between the two types of artist has actually been healthy for the arts. Vive la différence.