Jim Jarmusch on Artistic Inspiration and the Value of Authentic Theft

Today, I'm adding to my "Cool Artists Talking About Their Art" file with this intriguing reflection on originality, authenticity, and re-purposing from MovieMaker's Magazine #53 and "Things I've Learned: Jim Jarmusch."

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."

My first thought when I read this was that I'm not sure how well these sentiments fit with Jarmusch's own artistic output. He's definitely "authentic," but he's also overwhelmingly, even hilariously "original;" one-of-a-kind, really. (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai? Yeah, any film described as a "hip-hop infused samurai-gangster pic" is probably going to be an original. And while there have been any number of acid Westerns throughout the years, I'm virtually certain there will never be another one like Dead Man.)

Yes, both those films borrow heavily from long-standing genre themes and ideas, so the first half of his quote applies there, I suppose. But they don't just borrow. They borrow and then take their borrowed ideas in entirely unexpected, insane directions. Maybe it's really more a matter of definition than of genuine disagreement, but when I see "authentic" and think about applying it to Jarmusch and his work, I want to use the word "original," as well.

I think that's why I prefer Kirby Ferguson's language of "remixing," because it suggests both that the material came from somewhere first, and that the final product is somehow "other;" its own creative entity, despite its origins. And I think that why I actually like the Godard quote best of all. Because "stealing" from other artists -- especially those one loves -- certainly doesn't prevent one from taking their works to entirely different (and worthwhile) places.

Attribution(s): Jimmy J. photo courtesy of Getty Images, which allows the use of certain images "as long as the photo is not used for commercial purposes (meaning in an advertisement or in any way intended to sell a product, raise money, or promote or endorse something);" "Theft of Fire" by Christian Griepenkerl is licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.