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All art is wonderfully derivative

Lou Kaloger

Untitled In 1969, California-based artist John Baldessari and his friend George Nicolaidis took a stroll through the city. While walking, Baldessari shot photographs of Nicolaidis pointing at things. On the surface the objects seemed random and rather ordinary, but they were items both the photographer and the one pointing found interesting. The film was developed and 35mm slides were distributed to fourteen amateur painters whose work Baldessari had seen at regional art fairs. The painters were instructed to faithfully copy the photographs. Baldessari then added captions identifying the painters' names. The fourteen works were exhibited in Los Angeles and New York under a series titled The Commissioned Paintings (1970).

So here's my question: Who is the artist? Is it Nicolaidis who pointed? Is it Baldessari who snapped the pictures? Is it the fourteen amateur artists who painted? Or are we the artist for assigning meaning (or disdain) to these works?

I am not suggesting this is great art, but I am asserting that creativity is inescapably collaborative. This is true even when we work alone. Even when we work alone we are in constant dialogue with others: Those that came before us, those that are part of our present culture, even those who will follow. The works is ours, but at the same time it is not.

All art is wonderfully derivative. All art is wonderfully unoriginal. All art is wonderfully borrowed.

So let me borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Let he who is not in community beware of being alone."