If my respect for Bob Dylan were a boat, it would be leaking.
First there was the brouhaha over Dylan's first number one hit in 30 years, "Modern Times," when many of the songs on the album were tracked to traditional sources despite being credited to Dylan. Then many of the lyrics on the same album had to defended against charges that Dylan lifted them from an obscure 19th century poet named Henry Timrod.
Now there's a show of Dylan's paintings at Gagosian Gallery in New York. The Gallery originally said that the paintings provided "firsthand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape" observed by the singer during his travels in Asia.
Trouble was, they weren't firsthand—Dylan copied them from photographs. Here's one example, of a painting copied from a photograph by Dmitri Kessel, and here are a couple more, copied from photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Léon Busy.
At least five and maybe six of the paintings in the Gagosian exhibition were based on original historical photographs in the collection of Okinawa Soba, who posted them on Flickr (he thinks a sixth is questionable as Dylan's source).
Historical photo from the collection of Okinawa Soba, from Flickr
Another Soba photo from Flickr
It's plagiarism, sure, but it's Bob Dylan, so he'll be forgiven. After all, "The immature poet imitates; the mature poets steals," said the great modernist poet T.S. Eliot...
(...Except he didn't. The quote is "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different," and it was written in a biographical essay about Eliot by one Philip Massinger, a poet who, it turns out, was very "mature" himself.)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Sergey Botvin: "If only the painter (Dylan) could force himself into not 'forgetting' photographer's shadow (first picture, lower left corner). Now that would be some real maturity."
Mike replies: I noticed the same thing! The biggest compositional change he makes in any of the paintings I've seen—that I can see, anyway—was to remove the shadow of the photographer from that picture.
Of course, in another sense, you could say the shadow of photography is all over these paintings.
Featured Comment by Dwain Barefield: "This is what Joni Mitchell had to say about Dylan in a 2010 interview: 'Bob is not authentic at all: He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.'"
Featured [partial] Comment by MHV: ""Guess who wrote the catalogue for this exhibit of highly original pictures? Richard Prince. Remember the Marlboro man? I think we're about to hit a postmodern Singularity of appropriation...."
Featured Comment by Phil Service: "I won't address the issue of the paintings/photographs, and Joni Mitchell is entitled to her opinion. However, I don't think Dylan was trying to fool anyone with 'Modern Times.' The first few lines of 'Spirit on the Water' are straight from Genesis. That's hardly trying to sneak under the radar. 'Rollin' and Tumblin',' or something very similar, has been recorded by many people in many different versions. Sometimes McKinley Morganfield (a.k.a. Muddy Waters) is credited as the composer, but often it seems to be considered 'traditional' or public domain. (I'm guessing the song was not original with Muddy Waters, either.) Dylan has always been a sponge, who has absorbed folk, blues, country, rock, pop and just about everything else. I would argue that it is one aspect of his genius. He has certainly re-used (traditional) melodies. Woody Guthrie did that all the time. Are we also going to accuse Guthrie of plagiarism, or of being unorginal? For that matter, many artists have re-envisioned earlier works by other artists. Case in point: Manet's 'Le dejeuner sur l'herbe' clearly is inspired by several paintings and engravings by other artists. (You can check the Wikipedia page if you like.)
"At least as far as his music is concerned, I don't think Dylan is trying to fool anyone. Good grief, it was never any secret that he admired Woody Guthrie, and imitated Guthrie's songwriting and musical style, as long as it suited him, or until he had exhausted the artistic possibilities that he could find in Guthrie's style. But Dylan, as all great artists, also moved on to other other forms. He's always been what he wanted to be, not what we wanted him to be. Is that what Joni Mitchell is complaining about? Part of the enjoyment of Dylan's music is discovering his sources and seeing how he modifies, re-works and re-imagines them."
Featured Comment by Nick: "There are many things that puzzle me about this: Does Bob Dylan really need more money at this point? Why did he copy them so exactly when it wouldn't be that much more work to add, subtract, or rearrange elements and make them into clearly derivative works? If people are just paying for the name, why would they need to make up this whole cock-and-bull story about how he was inspired by visiting Asia? And who are the people buying these ugly, ugly paintings, anyway?"