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Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (4)

Bob Dylan, "The Asia Series," catalogues, 2011

Bob Dylan, “The Asia Series,” catalogues, 2011

Accused by one reader of “badly parsing” Bob Dylan’s description of his working method as a painter in an earlier post on this subject, I elaborated as follows to make myself more clear:

Photographs including human figures that aren’t simulacra (sculptures, mannikins, dolls) represent “real people.” But the photographs themselves aren’t real people; they’re images of real people. Photographs of people on the street (those that aren’t staged, anyhow) represent “real street scenes,” but they aren’t real street scenes; they’re images of real street scenes.

A photograph of a real person or a real street scene is “tangible,” technically speaking — capable of being perceived, especially by the sense of touch — but hardly tangible in the way that a real person or a real street scene is tangible when you stand physically in its presence.

So when a professional wordsmith like Dylan gets asked whether he paints from sketches or photographs and answers “I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes . . . it has to start with something tangible,” he’s clearly making a distinction between painting from sketches or photographs he didn’t make himself and painting from real life. He’s asserting that his work begins with direct, personal, eyes-on sensory encounter with his subjects (as distinct from direct, personal, eyes-on sensory encounter with photographs of things he’s never actually seen).

I see no other reasonable way to interpret his reply. Which, based on the evidence, is at the very least deliberately misleading, at worst an outright lie.

Bob Dylan, "Opium," 2009, left; Léon Busy, untitled, Vietnam, 1915, right.

Bob Dylan, “Opium,” 2009, left; Léon Busy, untitled, Vietnam, 1915, right.

To be fair to Dylan (and the Gagosian Gallery, where the show, reviewed in my last post, just closed), the exhibition catalogue does include an essay, “There Goes My Hero,” by Richard Prince — himself no stranger to deriving works from other people’s photographs, and to the ensuing uproar. (Click here for  “Bob Dylan’s Fugitive Art,” a truncated version of that text.) Prince writes,

“I know [Dylan] paints on the road. In hotel rooms. And there are a lot of hotel rooms — he goes all over the world. . . . When you’re painting a whole scene, whether it’s a portrait or a boat going up the canal or a view outside your hotel window and you’re trying to get the trees to fuse into a path a man is walking on … it takes something that’s instinctive instead of learned. . . . The paintings that Dylan showed me out in L.A. were paintings from his travels in Asia. Some of them looked too big for him to have painted them while he was there, so maybe he had done them from memory or a photograph or a sketch or a drawing.”

Yes, there’s some coy hinting here re the use of photographs, but hardly enough to offset those assertions about “visual journal,” “painting from real life,” “paintings from his travels in Asia,” and other contrary indications. Given the contradictions, I can understand how those conflicting utterances have created a controversy. And it certainly doesn’t help when someone like Johanna Parker, a moderator for the Bob Dylan fan page Expecting Rain, makes statements along these lines:

“I consider Mr. Dylan a well-read man who chooses the subjects for his art carefully. I am not sure why he doesn’t credit his sources. Sometimes I think he is playing with his admirers and critics and tests both their loyalty and their investigative skills. I think he copies with a wink and a smile at his audience. He knows he will be found out.” (Quoted in “Controversy Grows Over Bob Dylan’s Paintings at the Gagosian,” by Marlon Bishop, September 29, 2011, at the WNYC Culture website.)

Bob Dylan "Under the Red Sky," 1990, coverI consider this little more than mealy-mouthed bullshit. This isn’t a matter of hiding fragments of public-domain children’s rhymes inside his songs like a trail of breadcrumbs, as Dylan did in his 1990 album Under the Red Sky. Following these clues doesn’t enrich one’s understanding of the acts of either painting or photographing, or add layers of nuance to the paintings.

Nor is it a matter of “Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it,” as Dylan wrote in “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” a short and semi-fictionalized autobiography he published in 1962. Dylan has identified himself as a “conscious artist”; for such a person, knowingly incorporating aspects of someone else’s work as the complex infrastructure for a carefully painted canvas constitutes a deliberate choice, not some osmotic process.

What bothers me about this — the only thing that bothers me, in fact, from Dylan’s end — is the lack of straightforwardness. “To live outside the law you must be honest,” Dylan wrote in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” almost half a century ago. I don’t understand this game, but I don’t find it enjoyable or instructive in any way, and I don’t consider it honest. Dylan’s had his ups and downs as an artist, so there’s work of his I don’t hold in high regard; but as a public figure he’s rarely disappointed me.

If you read his published interviews, his liner notes for his own and other people’s albums, his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, and take into account the hundreds of songs by others he’s included in his own performances and recordings, you’ll find him giving credit and paying homage to countless figures in the creative arts on whose work he’s drawn for inspiration. He’s done that voluntarily, and (in my opinion) forthrightly and generously. Which make his lack of candor in this situation all the more disturbing; it’s beneath him, an untypical act of bad faith.

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Yet there are aspects of the debate over this matter that perturb me for other reasons. The discussion of Dylan’s method has its peculiarities, among them the fact that much of the commentary, pro and con, comes from Dylan fans and scholars who know little or nothing about common practices in the visual arts, and the bulk of the remainder comes from art writers who know little or nothing about common practices in music.

Consider, for example, the distinctly vindictive tone manifested in Ann Binlot’s September 27, 2011, article for ArtInfo, “Did Bob Dylan Rip Off Classic Photos for His Gagosian Show? See the Evidence”:

“Time and time again folk rock legend Bob Dylan has blatantly borrowed for his lyrics. Christie’s auction house acknowledged in 2009 that a handwritten Dylan poem that was up for sale really consisted of words from a song by country crooner Hank Snow. Director Martin Scorsese showed in his 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, how Dylan stole the line ‘Go away from my window…’ — the immortal opener of his 1964 song ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ — from singer John Jacob Niles.”

Yes, true, the 15-year-old Bobby Zimmerman signed his name to and submitted for publication (in a summer-camp souvenir journal) the lyrics of a mawkish C&W “the day my dog Tippy died” ditty by Snow — a verse so bathetic that I suspect Dylan proposed it as his own either out of adolescent prankishness or as a ploy to impress girls. Someone else preserved this bit of Dylan juvenilia and put it up for auction; Dylan wasn’t claiming the lyric, or even the manuscript, as his own in ’09. Hardly the early warning signals of a future career fueled by IP theft, as Binlot implies.

And yes, “Go ‘Way From My Window” was a staple in the folk-music revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Joan Baez, one of Dylan’s paramours, had it in her repertoire, and recorded it as well. (Wikipedia notes that “The theme of the song is so common in the UK, USA and Canada that the phrase ‘Night-visiting song’ has been coined to cover all possible versions.”) Dylan didn’t need to “source” that phrase in any way; his audience would recognize the reference to Niles automatically.

Dylan’s ironic intent in this repurposing of that phrase couldn’t be more clear; where the Niles song is a generic, maudlin, one-size-fits-all “leave me alone, you who broke my heart” plea, Dylan’s is an itemized, merciless, surgical dissection of and dismissal of a lover — and a wry, alternative take on the entire “night-visiting song” genre.

John Jacob Niles, "My Precarious Life in the Public Domain," album cover

John Jacob Niles, “My Precarious Life in the Public Domain,” album cover

Here’s Niles on the origins of his composition:

“In 1908 my father had in his employ a Negro ditch-digger known as Objerall Jacket. As he dug, he sang, “Go way from my window, go way from my door” — just those words, over and over again, on two notes. Working beside Jacket all day (I was sixteen at the time), I decided that something had to be done. The results were a four-verse song dedicated to a blue-eyes, blond girl, who didn’t think much of my efforts. . . .”

So if Dylan “stole” that phrase from Niles, Niles “stole” it (plus a second phrase) from Jacket, who, most likely, didn’t make it up but recalled it from a song he’d heard, written by someone whose name we’ll never know. Which is how vernacular music got transmitted, verbal phrases and even whole verses, musical phrases and even whole melodies. It’s no less true in jazz, another form that shaped Dylan’s work; quotation and pastiche play a central role in jazz improvisation. Common practice, in short, accepted by all who work within those traditions. (As I write this, I’m listening to Gillian Welch’s “I Dream A Highway,” which includes the line “Lord, let me die with a hammer in my hand.” Straight out of “John Henry.” Should we wax indignant over that “theft” also?)

Nor is that process of compositional borrowing, reworking, and incorporating unique to folk music. The American composers Charles Ives and Aaron Copland frequently used folk and popular-song motifs in their compositions. Igor Stravinsky built his ballet “Petroushka” out of a pastiche of eastern European folk songs and dances, organ-grinder tunes, and such. Erik Satie “sampled” other contemporary composers, Gregorian chant, and assorted ethnological recordings for fragments that he reworked and combined. The instances in classical music are countless. Rarely have such composers felt it obligatory, or even worthwhile, to footnote their sources, leaving that to musicologists. And rarely have critics or audiences felt cheated by such reinterpretations of existing materials.

Thus the comments on Dylan’s musical practice by art writers who (like Binlot) have clearly failed to do anything remotely resembling elementary research before issuing uninformed, irresponsible attacks on Dylan’s musical practice in the guise of news stories have embarrassed the profession. They’ve also confused the issues related to Dylan’s methods as a painter, rather than contributing to their clarification.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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3 comments to Bob Dylan: The Painter and the Photograph (4)

  • You are being very coy and foxy when it comes to icon Bob Dylan my dear AD. ;o)

    These are outright example of plagiarism made worse by a ton of bad faith, if not outright lies by the singing artist (amateur painter at best), Gagosian and Richard Prince. I think one recognizes one when they see whom they associate with – the implications of this well-known saying are so well exemplified here, aren’t they?

    Poor Norsigian did not have the same treatment, did he?

    …as in “Le chat, la belette et le petit lapin” that fable by Jean de La Fontaine (most of his fables were also inspired by others but he never denied it), and his point was to introduce them into French literature and entertain while moralize not exemplified how perverse, cynical and rotten the art market could be. Thank you Andy Warhol!

    • Not sure how Rick Norsigian comes into this. Whatever the ultimate verifiable truth of his claim that Ansel Adams made the negatives he discovered (as detailed here), I believe that he believes that story — which no one has yet authoritatively disproven, I should add. No bad faith there on his part, in my opinion.

      And I’m certainly not trying to act “coy and foxy” in re to Dylan’s paintings. I’ve described Dylan’s collaboration in presenting these paintings as based on first-hand observation thus: “. . . at the very least deliberately misleading, at worst an outright lie. . . . his lack of candor in this situation [is] all the more disturbing; it’s beneath him, an untypical act of bad faith.” At the same time, I’m trying to identify and separate out fuzzy thinking and what I consider confusing, loaded, and often heated language, as a prelude to putting Dylan’s process in the context of other painters who have worked from photographs.

  • I forgot to also thank a lazy, uneducated, fashion-following moneyed audience who, as an efficient accomplice, allows this to happen. ;o)

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