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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, October 06, 2011


So Bob Dylan has not won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. And doesn't need it.

John Baldwin's Desolation Row Information Service e-newsletter recently asked Paul Wood, an art lecturer and owner of several of the Drawn Blank prints, for his thoughts about Dylan's Asia Series paintings and the "plagiarism" question. These were circulated in the e-newsletter yesterday  -  and I found them so interesting, and inclusive of so much, that I asked his permission to reprint them. He has agreed  -  for which I thank him  -  but he has asked that I make it clear that "it is a relatively informal reflection, not originally intended for 'broadcast' so to speak, more a contribution to an open and on-going debate than a fully resolved 'position-piece'."

Here's what he wrote:

You asked me for my thoughts on the 'plagiarism' issue that has come up again over the Asia Series paintings.

My first thought, when I first stumbled across the issue last week was ‘Here we go again’. And the responses I have seen so far tend to reproduce the existing ‘debate’, such as it is, oscillating between a kind of mixed guilt and anger at having enjoyed the work of a plagiarist, and a naïve shrugging it all off, usually validated by a convenient aside from TS Eliot.

I have tried to think about it a bit more, but it doesn’t really get any clearer. I have to say I am puzzled.

I don't think it is an issue that can be ignored. At the same time I don't think it's a question of outdated outrage about 'originality', 'authenticity' and so forth. It is strange how the question seems so blatant and simple, yet is actually so complicated. Where I’ve got to thus far is this:

I think there are different levels to Bob's 'untruths' for want of a better way of putting it.

Level One, so to speak. There are the early 'fantasies' - working on fairgrounds etc. I don't think these are anything other than evidence of an extremely active imagination. Probably crucial to him being able to break through the boundaries and do what he did. Being unable to distinguish between fact and fancy may have a clinical dimension in the normal course of events, but in the case of an artist, a vigorous imagination can be positively beneficial. Other aspects of the juvenilia are slightly different but, I feel, of equally little consequence. For example the 'Drunkards Son' etc manuscripts. I used to copy out Robert Johnson songs when I was fifteen. It's not unusual, and if someone had a band they might easily sing such things and claim they were theirs. It's only later fame that has put these under the spotlight and made them seem symptomatic. (Stealing LP’s. Let he who casts the first stone…)

Level Two. Then there is the incorporation of quotations from other authors into songs. Again, I don't think this is really an issue. It has become pronounced in the later work, and to that degree, unusual. But the quotations are made over into something new. I never understood why the lawyers that must surround every move of  ‘B.D. Inc’ didn't just list the sources on the albums and have done. That would have been perfectly ok, even open to being regarded as cutting edge, in a climate of 'postmodernism'. I think this applies equally to lines from old songs and also to prose, such as the Yakusa biography, which is made over into song.

Level Three. The radio shows have also had their doubters. But once again, I think Bob made these over into something of his own, whoever did the spadework. This is not a problem for me; and anyway, the whole edifice is set up as blurring of the bounds of fantasy and reality in the first place.

Level Four. The unacknowledged use of others’ prose in the autobiography seems to cross a line. I'm not quite sure where the line is, but there's a difference. I have heard it claimed that the book was "pretty well all stolen"? I didn't think it was so extensive. But even so, just taking another author's prose and passing it off as your own, unacknowledged and without transformation, seems to open onto another terrain. It is certainly the stuff of censure in academic contexts. Moreover it has to be deliberate; there’s no room for ‘might not have remembered’, ‘the box wrote that one’ etc. At the very least it is culpably slack. What also begins to obtrude here is the economic question – making money out of other peoples’ work (which also applied, of course, to a point from the previous ‘Level Two’ in the case of copyrighting ‘Jim Jones’. And subsequently settling.)

So up to now, it is only the prose borrowings in Chronicles that have seemed really problematic to me.

Now Level Five: the visual art. This seems to open onto a different, and possibly more complex range of issues. The original Drawn Blank sketches do not represent a problem. They are just amateur sketches of a kind any number of us do. The post-Chemnitz prints however, move the goalposts. They are mechanically blown up from the original book, the actual drawings having been lost, and then coloured in. At one level, this is more ‘postmodernism’.  As long ago as Warhol's work of the sixties it was actually interesting, questioning as it did receive notions of authorship, originality, etc etc. But in the case of the Drawn Blank ‘limited edition’ prints the process is overlaid with a rhetoric of originality, autographic creativity etc, which opens up a gap between the myth on the basis of which they are sold, for money, and the technological reality. It's a murky area of the art market (not dissimilar to Salvador Dali prints). In one sense, it is nakedly economic, at least as much to do with the signature and their resale value than any worth they possess in their own right. Or, if you do that moving of the goalposts again, you might see them as curios of the world we live in, indexical traces of Bob’s passage one step removed (Question: what’s the difference between a signed Bob Dylan print and an autographed cricket bat?). Actually, it’s probably a bit of both. (personally, I bought ‘Train Tracks’ because I like it 'innocently', whatever the above circuitous questions; and 'Motel Pool' precisely because of those questions viz a typically corporate Richard Hamilton subject bizzarely rendered into a pastiche of early 20th century expressionism. Peculiar...hence interesting, somehow).

And now, still on Level Five, but up a couple of mezzanine floors… the Asia Series. I have to say I just cannot make any sense of this. There is nothing 'wrong' or even unusual about painting from photographs. It became a kind of postmodernist routine about living in a world of representations and simulacra, losing our grip on the real, etc etc. But in Dylan’s case the surrounding rhetoric is not about that at all, but instead all about realism, authentic vision, etc etc (What on earth John Elderfield, a reputable historian of modernism, makes of it I can't imagine; his whole pitch in the ‘Brazil Series’ catalogue was about a return to realism, an American tradition stretching back to Thomas Hart Benton and others in the 1930s). Whatever these ‘paintings’ are, they are not works of realism, in the sense of being pictures of reality.

It was obvious at first glance that at least some of them were painted from photographs, but the initial assumption was they were Dylan’s photographs – a source a bit like a quicker version of the original Drawn Blank sketches; which isn’t a problem. It is the nature of the photographs that really generates the tension. Again I wonder, who, who, in either 'institution' be it 'Gagosian' mega-artmarket blue-chip gallery institution or 'the Bob Dylan' institution could have imagined the copying would go unnoticed? Moreover, I simply don't get the point of it. Dylan is the greatest songwriter in the world. If he took the telephone directory he could make it powerful. But he is not a great visual artist. These things are not interesting in themselves, they are only interesting because he is Bob Dylan, and they are starting to be interesting only for the wrong reasons. To repeat myself, they could be very interesting. If Dylan was engaging with some post-colonialist debate about stereotypical Orientalist representations of the Other, blah blah, then you could easily construct a sense for the enterprise. But he clearly isn’t. There is no engagement with the materialism of the source images, either anonymous 19th century, or the very different 20th century Cartier-Bresson, or whatever. There is nothing about why the photographs copied were chosen; not least because the implication was allowed to grow that the resulting paintings did have some rootedness in the recent Asian tours, and Dylan’s observation of reality.  The unavoidable question is Why? Back to being puzzled. It can't just be money that drives this. Because in the end the whole product risks being devalued.  So what is it? To me, it barely makes sense. I cannot see, from Dylan’s point of view, where the productive, pleasurable work lies. Because he talks so well about art in the accompanying interview. But the terms on which he talks about it are contradicted by the nature of the work itself. It is very strange indeed.
So I am back to the starting point. I could go on, but at present, until more information becomes available, that’s my resting point. Beyond banal censure, the question of what sense we make of this work presently seems unresolvable.

Maybe it isn't so important. Maybe it is. Anyway...I am still looking forward to the Glasgow concert in a few days time, and that is what counts. I have lived with, and to some extent through, Dylan's work for nearly fifty years now, what? With this so-called ‘plagiarism’ issue, I don’t think it is a simple matter of either turning a blind eye, or a sort of guilty complicity in 'living a lie'. We all live lies. These ones in question somehow remain interesting, if only in the gap between the words and the pictures, the complexity of that gap, and its present unfathomability.


Anonymous Wiebke said...

Thanks for posting this out in the open, it's refreshing to read such a considerate comment about Bob's appropriating ways. It would have been incredibly funny and pleasing though had Bob got the Nobel Prize in the wake of the latest accusations.

4:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It really is refreshing to hear a voice of reason. I am equally perplexed. In one of the earlier entries here I brought up the subject of Dylan's motives. I have honestly been wondering, particularly since the Asia Series fiasco, why Dylan would do it. You could see him getting artistic pleasure from writing Floater or Cross The Green Mountain, and being a bit of naughty boy in the process. But this? What on earth could he have got out of painting these photographs. It must surely be some kind of grand bluff, a game.

10:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps too much is read into this. Maybe he does enjoy copying photos in his painting. Who knows? Does anyone really care?

It seems highly unlkely that Dylan would be involved in some sort of scam to make money; but more likely, perhaps, tht it is a joke at the art market's expense. Again - who knows?

Since it his music that I am really interested in, I'm more concerned with allegations of plagiarism here - but from what I've read these don't amount to anything - not plagiarism,more the creative use of influence, imo.

Even Chronicles well it's still Dylan's work - he still shaped the material. Using sentences of decription from myriad other sources doen't seem like plagiarism to me - which, to me, is taking the whole of a piece of work and displaying it as one's own, while still being reognisably another's work.

10:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine, thoughtful post. What puzzles me most is that surely Dylan knows his sources will be eventually identified, given the attention not only his work but every utterance receives. It does indeed seem like a game he's playing.

5:14 pm  
Anonymous Dave Harper said...

This is really all about how Bob works.
Takes the familiar and invests it with mystery and new perspectives.

10:09 pm  
Blogger hildairene said...

What if you took slides of the paintings in the same size as the photographs and put them on top of them?
This thought led me to the following idea:
What has been coming out of Asia for years now:
Imitations,copies and fakes of all sorts of products,
technical as wel as fashionable.
So........if you do not judge them but take back a step what do you see?
Exactly.......but then the other way around.

4:50 am  
Anonymous Rambling Gambling Gordon said...

Nothing to do with the art discussion, but just wondering if I dreamt those several minutes of unbridled comic magnificence at the Glasgow concert last night during Things Have Changed.
Flapping his hands, kicking invisible footballs into the air, fiddling now with his trousers, fiddling now with his hair, pointing, bending, crouching, grinning (your read it correctly – grinning) and enunciating every word with spirit-lifting urgency.
As weird and wonderful a performance I’ve seen him give in years. Stan Laurel in a Zorro hat, singing like his life depended on it.

1:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good read, thanks. The Glasgow show last night was superb by the way, hope u enjoyed it as much as I did

2:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, I found this blog post to be very interesting, and more along the lines of your own investigations than just some idle blathering.
I'd love to see the whole of the recent "interview." It would be nice if there was some way of getting it aside from having to purchase the catalogue.

Patrick Ford

3:16 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Patrick, there is - the whole thing is online at You click on the little box that says Elderfield.

2:07 pm  
Blogger psteve said...

I was in New York last week, and stopped in the gallery for a look. I did Bob a disservice, I think, as I stopped there last after a day at MOMA and another day at the Met. After that, Dylan's paintings, knowing what I've read about them, really left me cold. No, I didn't expect Bob to be a De Kooning (an amazing show of his work at MOMA) or Franz Hals (another great show at the Met), but these paintings just did not move me.

What it came down to, was that I didn't see Dylan in the paintings. I didn't see anything that made me think I was seeing his unique eye, that he had anything to say here, or was choosing not to say anything. Very disappointing, but like I say, maybe I set myself up for it.

2:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael, Thanks I hadn't thought to look there. It's pretty clear the last few "interviews" are hardly live, and are part of Dylan's parlor tricks.
While I'm thinking of it. Have you investigated the "raps" from Masked and Anonymous? While the movie as a whole isn't much, just about every individual scene isolated as a set piece monologue is great in my opinion. I assume it was Dylan who wrote or constructed the raps, and the other writer cooked up the "A Star is Reborn" scenario to drape them over. Anyhow I love most of them (particularly the Val Kilmer bit) and wonder if they have been sourced?
I of course have your Encyclopedia and have read the entry.

Patrick Ford

3:09 am  
Anonymous A Defrocked Priest said...


Speaking of accusations of plagiarism, don't know if you have seen the comments abut yourself on this rather bizarre website:

7:40 am  

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