ENGL 123
Borrowing and Stealing: Originality in Literature and Culture Spring 2010
Division I Writing Skills
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Class Details

Someone once said that bad poets borrow and good poets steal, suggesting that acts of theft, as well as their subsequent cover-ups, may lie behind some of the best and seemingly most original works of art in history. And it’s not just the poets. More recently, an exhibition of artworks using copyrighted material, called “Illegal Art,” has challenged current U.S. copyright law. Given the ubiquity of visual, electronic, and audio borrowing and sampling in contemporary art, one might wonder if anyone even bothers to create alibis for today’s artistic thefts. This course will investigate ideas about artistic and intellectual influence, inspiration, borrowing, revision, appropriation, and outright stealing. We will ask a series of questions as we look at a variety of material, mostly literary, but also visual and musical, that troubles ideas about novel and derivative art. Where does influence stop and plagiarism begin? What must be forgotten, or remembered, about earlier works of art for a new one to appear to be just that–new? Do aesthetic techniques of reframing and recontextualization have a history? The course will consider these questions mostly by engaging artworks that raise such questions, but also will read work in critical theory about authorship and copyright. We’ll spend time thinking about uncreative art and boring art, and consider what aesthetic categories are mobilized in conceptual art by visiting Sol Lewitt’s installation at MassMOCA. Throughout, we will refine our sense of the relations among fiction, art, originality, and imitation by studying some of the best acts of artistic and intellectual theft of the recent past. Readings: Roland Barthes, T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Borges, Oscar Wilde (lots), Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Nabokov, Andy Warhol, Christian Bök.
The Class: Format: discussion/seminar
Limit: 19
Expected: 19
Class#: 3591
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: intense reading; 20 pages of writing in the form of frequent short papers; active, substantial class participation; weekly online reading responses
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: first-year students
Distributions: Division I Writing Skills

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