The unoriginal sin

As we know, all good things which exist are the fruits of originality. Peter Hall claims that this is an outdated premise. After all, it doesn’t appear to matter that everything creative is merely a copy of what went before. The art of plagiarism, he conc

When the posters for Spike Lee’s new film Clockers appeared on the subways, they were strangely familiar. Mutterings were heard within graphic design circles of yet another instance of unabashed plagiarism from classic film posters in Lee’s publicity. The Clockers poster showed an image uncannily close to a very famous 1959 film poster by Saul Bass for Otto Preminger’s film, Anatomy of a Murder.

When Bass threatened to sue, Lee’s film studio had the poster altered slightly and the matter was dropped. The Hollywood-based designer of Lee’s posters, Art Sims, quickly denied any accusations of plagiarism, and the front door was left open for future borrowings within the profession.

In an age when appropriations are the substance of much new art, it is not surprising that the same practices exist in graphic design. But this does sometimes look suspiciously like laziness.

In a similar case, the New York graphic designers Emily Obermann and Bonnie Siegler blew the whistle a year or so ago on a coffee commercial featuring exquisitely ornate, flowing type by the Pentagram designer Paula Scher. In a lecture they pointed out the shockingly similar type in a commercial for Royal Mail made earlier in the UK.

Scher, a Post-Modernist and a designer of some repute, is a skilled hand at appropriation, adopting Russian Constructivist and Swiss influences, as seen in a series of award-winning posters for New York’s Public Theatre. The question, as one art director put it, was “whether or not Scher should be making a better job of hiding her sources”.

Hanging the success of a design on its failure to make its references clandestine, though, is misleading. Surely the true art of appropriation is doing it appropriately? This truism became patently obvious at a recent lecture by pop music video director Mark Romanek.

Romanek, whose credits include Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream, Madonna’s Rain and Bedtime Stories, and kd lang’s Constant Craving, hammered home the likelihood that he hadn’t a single original idea in his head. Scattered between commercial-style shots of models, Romanek’s videos lunged from inept references to inappropriate appropriations, plundering photographers, film directors, (Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel), and playwrights (Samuel Beckett) for source material.

With the possible exception of banal references to Bunuel’s surrealist films that lumbered through the broken imagery of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, Romanek’s most inept appropriation came in kd lang’s classic lesbian pop song Constant Craving, which he recognised as a worthy vessel to carry his long-held desire to film Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “There was a French cabaret feel to Lang’s album, so I attached the idea of Waiting for Godot to the song,” explained Romanek mysteriously.

Oddly enough, none of the sycophantic students in the audience flopped a forelock at this non-sequitur. It just seemed to confirm my hunch that Romanek’s argument that “about 99.8 per cent of music video is absolute crap, but 2 per cent is the most poetic, technically innovative film-making on the planet”, was only 2 per cent wrong.

There are times, of course, when imitation is a sincere form of flattery, and it seems to proliferate in advertising. The London ad agency Ammirati and Puris Lintas won an award in the New York One Show recently for its campaign for the homeless organisation Crisis, which imitated a Richard Avedon-style fashion spread, featuring the homeless instead of models.

Last year, after Vanity Fair magazine featured a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, a poster publicising the spoof action film Naked Gun 3313: The Final Insult appeared, superimposing actor Leslie Nielsen’s head on Demi Moore’s body.

If the plagiarism is funny, does it become acceptable? Had Spike Lee’s Clockers been a guns-and-drugs knockabout comedy, and the poster design injected with a dose of humour, would Bass and the Preminger estate have cared about the rip-off? It seems not. If designers were less covert about their practices, then accusations of plagiarism might be rarer. And if music video appropriations were more appropriate, the video might be more readily accepted – as Romanek wanted – as a prototype art form.

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