Visual remixes

Long before I got interested in electronic music, I was a fine arts guy. It bothers me that unauthorized appropriation of a music recording will get you sued, but visual artists who appropriate pop cultural materials get into museums and art history textbooks.

Marcel Duchamp

In ancient times and more traditional societies, there was never much importance attached to the concept of sole authorship or ownership of creative works. Widespread belief in the lone Byronic genius didn’t take hold until the eighteenth century in Europe. Duchamp signaled the beginning of the end of the Byronic genius with his readymades, like the infamous urinal, or this bicycle wheel:

Duchamp also remixed the Mona Lisa by painting on a mustache and goatee and writing a dirty joke on the bottom.

I appreciate Duchamp’s art-historical significance, but find him to be too much of a wiseass for my tastes. I like my visual art a little more sincere.

Joseph Cornell

As a college student, I saw my first Cornell boxes, and was knocked out of my socks by them.

I didn’t know at the time why I liked Cornell’s boxes so much, but now I do. I come from a family of congenital pack rats, and Cornell shows a way to turn that neurosis into art. By combining stuff he found in dime stores, pictures cut out of magazines, and junk he found on the street, Cornell was effectively making three-dimensional mashups. Cornell himself was a weird and creepy guy, but, man, I love the work.

Cornell boxes have spawned a genre unto themselves. I see a lot of knockoffs out there, and I tend to like them better than most of what’s happening in the contemporary art scene. My sister did a whole series of them using fruit crates; here’s the one she made about my dad:

Molly with Dad box

Dad's chair

Tom Phillips and A Humument

My favorite contemporary visual remix work is Tom Phillips’ multi-decade project, A Humument. The work consists of drawings and paintings done on pages from A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, a Victorian novel that Phillips chose at random. Read the full story on Phillips’ web site. Here are some representative pages:

And here’s a side-by-side comparison of before and after:

Web memes

The internet loves visual remixes, and has unleashed wave after wave of web memes based on the idea. Maybe they’re a little less highbrow than the above examples, but they have their own charm.

We live in a world overstuffed with meaningful objects. Making new objects seems ridiculous in such a world. Better to recontextualize existing, familiar materials, giving them new meaning by combining them in unexpected ways. That’s exactly how I feel about music, too. Music is intrinsically a collage form anyway — all “original” music is assembled from pre-existing chords, scales, rhythms, melodic motifs and so on. I think our culture would be healthier if we could bring musical collage above ground and give it the same respect we give to Duchamp and Cornell.

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