Re: An anatomy of artistic theft: NIN vs. Johnny Cash

This post is in response to Carter Gillies "An Anatomy of Artistic Theft". Click here to check it out.

"That seems to be the outstanding fact of a human life: In the very depths of our beating hearts and pulsing veins we are forever and without question cannibals of ideas and robbers of any ingredient that isn’t nailed down." C. Gillies

After reading Carter's post I immediately thought of great cover songs. The definitive example being Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt". Cash transcends the beautiful melancholy of Trent Reznor's lyrics transforming the song into a potent autobiography. It was Reznor's idea that created the lyrics but it was Cash's life that created a recording that stands the test of time. 

Reznor said of Cash's cover "I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I'd known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive." (click here for the full article) I can see Reznor's point of view. He displayed a huge dose of vulnerability to write this lyric. What have I become my sweetest friend, everyone I know goes away in the end. and you can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt. What makes this work is that Cash's life supported the content of the song he was covering. The intense spirit of reflection that Cash brings to his version came from his own experience with grief, loss, and isolation.

This same principle applies to borrowing ideas from other potter's work. If you can get inside an idea, absorbing the content, then the idea becomes a natural extension of you. This isn't a matter of technical skill. It is a matter of matching skill with content. At some point in every artist's development the "Aha" moment occurs when it becomes clear that with enough practice you can copy any pot. Then the question changes from "How do I make this handle, spout, etc, etc. " to "Why should I make this if it has already been done? What does it mean if I copy this? "  Answering these questions enables the evolution of an idea.

I like what Carter says about replication. "My heritage from Ron Meyers to Michael Simon to Linda Christianson seems pretty obvious to me, not so much as line for line replication but genetic indebtedness." The qualities in their work apply to his own because they all came to the same conclusion about pots. It is possible for potters to come up with the same answers to aesthetic questions without ever having direct contact with each other. This type of evolution is like two scientists coming up with the same solution to a similar research problem. If you take the birds eye view our art community is working on the problem of reacting/documenting cultural change. We cycle through larger ideas every five to ten years as culture shifts. For an example look at old Ceramics Monthlys. Periodically there are major shifts in technique and methods. This corresponds to shifts in cultural content that ripple through the community. We develop new methods to better communicate the change we see in the world around us.

My last point is that evolving other people's ideas is a healthy natural progression of knowledge. When I teach I am non possessive about techniques and ideas. I show students every possible solution because at the heart of my teaching I want my students to be better than me. Isn't this the whole point of teaching? I want them to absorb what I know and build on it for the next generation. How can our field grow if we are constantly reinventing the wheel out of some misplaced sense of ownership? I have been fortunate to have compassionate and patient teachers that would answer all my questions to the best of their ability. It is my responsibility as an educator to grant my students the same courtesy by demonstrating techniques and offering conceptual questions that will challenge their development as artists. 

A hearty to thanks to Carter Gillies for providing the topic of today's post. Check out Carter Gillies Pottery here. 


  1. Good post! I like how you took the issue from cover songs to simultaneous invention to pulling ideas out of the creative hive-mind to teaching. Glad you linked from Carter G's blog so I could find yours.

  2. Thanks Scott. It's good to meet you. Just checked out your website and blog. It was great to see your archive of old images. I like to see the changes in your forms over the years. Starting all your blog posts with a music lyric is a great idea. I look forward to reading more in the future.

  3. Ben this is an awesome post! I'm so glad we can talk about these issues in this way. I worry that too often we potters are misled by our collective mythologies and personal hang-ups. Getting some of these issues out in the open is the only way we have of exposing some real nonsense and backwards thinking that has ruled our attitudes and approaches for a while. I'm so glad you are a part of this discussion. Keep up the great work!

  4. I agree with you, that we have a responsibility as teachers to give our students the benefit of ALL the knowledge we can, so they can forge on from there and reach greater heights! How can it be stealing an idea if you put your own heart and soul into it to make it a part of you? I tell my students to look for design ideas in my bookshelf, and then change that design idea and make it personal to them. I get some great designs that way!

  5. Forms, colors, motifs, even ideas, we can take these on "as our own" but we can never own them. It would appear that intention separates adaptation from mimicry. I appreciate your support of full disclosure with students when it comes to technique and conceptual challenges, helping them to know the full spectrum of possibilities available for their considered use. I strongly support such openness in the class and studio, having personally benefited from the generous guidance of artists further along than myself. Thank you, Ben, for your discrimination and generosity in this post, and for bringing up the Man in Black!