Remakes: Monkey see, monkey redo

Baltimore Sun

What's new in the world of the arts?

Zip. Zilch. Absolutely nothing. Or so it sometimes seems.

Now playing at the movies? Well, there's "King Kong," which first came out in 1933, was remade in 1976 and has been remade again 30 years later. Or how about "The Producers"? It came out as a movie in 1968, became a hit Broadway play in 2001 and now is back as a movie while continuing to run on Broadway.

And then there's "The Odd Couple." It premiered on Broadway in 1965, became a movie in 1968, was a TV show from 1970 to 1975, returned to Broadway in the 1980s with female stars and then came back to Broadway again late last year, featuring the same two guys who starred onstage in "The Producers."

When it comes to the arts in 2006, from highbrow to lowbrow, from hot and trendy galleries to the family TV screen, is anything we'll see new -- really new? Or, as much bigger minds have argued, is all art derivative?

In 2006, can an artist putting brush to canvas, pen to paper, finger to keyboard, lips to instrument, expect to go where no one has gone before? And if he or she did, would we recognize it as original, or scoff at it as folly?

The next big thing is not likely to be a new thing -- partly because the cutting edge, as its name implies, is a dangerous place to be; partly because the world has become obsessed with big profits; partly because we, the masses, kind of like the familiar; and partly because much, if not all, has been done before.

The theory that nothing is new isn't anything new.

It was Alphonse Karr, a French journalist and novelist, who almost 160 years ago noted, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" -- "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Long before that, the author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes wrote: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Or, in more modern terms, "Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt."

(What, you were expecting originality here?)

This would, in part, explain the third "King Kong," the plethora of reality TV shows and why that music, book or art exhibit might seem vaguely, or even blatantly, like something you've experienced before.

"There have been human beings on the face of this earth for a very long time; it would be arrogant and presumptuous of us to think that, at least in part, these ideas we are working on today have not been tested before in another time or another place," said Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at Maryland Institute College of Art. "It has all been done before, even if we may not have known it or seen it."

King-Hammond regularly tells her students as much -- not to squelch creativity, but to teach humility and respect for the past. It doesn't mean an artist can't creatively build on what has come before, she said, and, in doing so, produce something distinctly his or her own.

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, sees it somewhat differently.

"Is everything derivative? Is it all repackaging and rehashing? I don't think so. It's very rare, but every once in a while, an evolutionary, revolutionary, revelatory kind of thing happens -- a burst of the new. Every once in a while, there's an astonishment.

"To say, 'You will never think a thought that hasn't been thought before,' that is wrong. Was there a World Wide Web before? I would rather just say to a kid, 'Astonish me.' "

Yet, when something new does come along it is more often than not misunderstood, laughed at or ignored.

In 1875, the first organized exhibition by Vincent van Gogh's colleagues, the Impressionists, required a police riot squad, and they were held up to widespread ridicule.

In 1952, composer John Cage unveiled his infamous piece, "4:33," whereby the performer sat at a piano with its lid closed over the keys for four minutes and 33 seconds. The resulting "music" consisted only of cleared throats, mumbles from the audience and silence. It was viewed at the time not so much as the work of a genius as of a fool.

"I think if there was something which was absolutely, entirely original, then it would be discarded because no audience member could relate to it," said Anthony J. Viola, associate director of the writing program at the University of Kentucky.

"This is why most art, for it to be acknowledged by an audience, and whether it be low- or high-brow, is a reinvention of some sorts," he added.

While originality is still a goal in the fine arts, it seems less so in the entertainment world, where, rather than plow new ground, the tendency is to repeat proven -- i.e. profitable -- formulas.

So plays become movies ("Driving Miss Daisy," "Romeo & Juliet"). Movies become plays ("The Producers," "The Color Purple"). Television shows become movies ("Charlie's Angels," "Dukes of Hazzard"). Movies become TV shows ("Fame," "MASH"). Movies become video games ("Lion King," "Pocahontas). Video games become movies ("Doom," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Mortal Kombat").

And nowhere is success mimicked more often than on TV.

Do we really need "Trading Spouses" and "Wife Swap"? "Pimp My Ride" and "Overhaulin' "? Or three different "CSIs"? And, while the technology of probing dead people and crime scenes has advanced remarkably, are "CSI Las Vegas/Miami/New York" really that much different in concept than "Quincy, Medical Examiner," which first aired 30 years ago?

"There is nothing new under the sun," says David Sterritt, a retired film critic who teaches at MICA and chairs the National Society of Film Critics. "Not to get too philosophical about it, but almost everything is on a continuum. You can always find something leading up to any phenomenon you want.

" 'Seinfeld' was considered pretty original in its day, partly because he was a comedian playing himself, and it was very postmodern. But you can go back to the 1950s and find George Burns playing George Burns."

While the movie industry has had its share of innovators and pioneers, Sterritt says that outside of technological advances, the storytelling involved has not changed much.

"A lot of it is about packaging -- taking something that's been around and putting it out in a new way and calling it new, and most people are very pleased with just that little bit of newness. The huge trick of it is to give people exactly what they want in a way that appears fresh and novel."

America is becoming less dependent on the mass media. Just as the Internet and blogs have made it possible for anyone to be a scribe, the 'Net and access to video technology are making it possible for anyone to make and distribute their own fiction, movies, music and art.

And while that is new, what is produced will mostly be derivative, for many reasons, chief among them being we are a derivative species, living in a derivative country.

"The U.S. is the newest country on the face of the globe," King-Hammond said. "We are still constructing our sense of aesthetic identity, and we have constructed who we are out of the residuals of all the other world cultures.

"Derivative? In a way, that's what America is."

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