The ever-controversial Michel Foucault argued in 1970 that books came to be "assigned real authors . . . only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive." Previously, bylines had been applied mostly to scientific works and inventions, the better to allow the Catholic Church to keep the Galileos of its world in line, Foucault said. By contrast, "those texts that we now call 'literary' [folk tales, stories, the ballads of anonymous troubadours, stories, epics, tragedies]were accepted, circulated and valourized without any questions about the identity of their author."
That we still get upset or mildly disappointed or saddened when we discover, for instance, that 2001's Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky, co-starring Penelope Cruz, was a remake of a 1997 Spanish film called Open Your Eyes,co-starring the same Penelope Cruz, is understandable.
It's understandable because, in the words of William Beard, "authenticity is such a vanishingly rare and prized quality nowadays that any hint of it needs to be defended wherever it occurs and, even more important, [the notion of]its absence needs to be denied." Furthermore, as another writer once observed, plagiarism , copying, "artistic thievery," is a lot like pornography: Everyone seems to know it when he or she sees it, but nobody can agree on an acceptable definition or whether it's a bad thing or a good thing.
Beard is a professor of film and media studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the author of The Artist as Monster, a study of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, and Clint Eastwood: Persistence of Double Vision. For him, "there's more inauthenticity than ever in postmodernism -- in fact, postmodernism, more or less, is inauthenticity."
People, however, "aren't willing to let all the old naive notions of truth go yet, notwithstanding the fact that, in their hearts, they don't really believe in them and are up to the nostrils in the fact that, basically, everything is a copy," Beard says. "It's the need to keep believing, in a disavowing way, that this isn't happening and that things are still what they always were, that fuels these denunciations and the accompanying tone of hysteria."
Bart Testa, a professor of cinema studies and semiotics at the University of Toronto, notes that there's always been "an exchange of things" when cultures meet or find out about each other. Hollywood didn't introduce its best foreign-language film category until the 1956 Oscars, but Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai had already played the U.S. art-house circuit a year or so earlier. By 1960, U.S. director John Sturges had relocated Kurosawa's small farming village in 16th-century Japan to a town in late 19th-century Mexico and was calling his film The Magnificent Seven.(This, in turn, begat Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, The Magnificent Seven Ride, Battle Beyond the Stars, Seven Magnificent Gladiators and A Bug's Life.)
What's new is that "it's happening much faster" now, Testa says, and it's wreaking havoc both on our old-fangled belief that "authors are supposed to originate their material" and with the tradition that "cultural production is nationally bound, culturally bound."
What's not new, he chuckled, "is that it's always startling for us."
For Bruce W. Powe, author of The Solitary Outlaw and A Tremendous Canada of Light, the value we place on the unique and the original is "a caricature" of the Romantic movement of the late-18th to mid-19th centuries.
"Audacity is more important than originality" for Powe, and "tradition personalized is the beginning of the truly new." In fact, the more an artist strives to be wholly original, the more he or she is "likely to end up being merely novel." What matters -- and what's bound to have greater resonance and endurance in the culture at large -- is what the artist takes from the existing world and how he or she transforms it.
Pablo Picasso understood this when he supposedly asked his partner in cubism and collage, Georges Braque, early in the 20th century: "What have you got that I can use?"