Bob Dylan looks back

The songwriter’s latest exhibition of paintings has been plagued with accusations of plagiarism, but

When Bob Dylan's first major US exhibition of original artwork opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York on 20 September, critics were united in their relief that the assembled paintings were, if not groundbreaking, not as awful as the science-based lithographs of the former Monkees front man Micky Dolenz. Or as dull as the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood's portraits of . . . er, the Rolling Stones. Some rock musicians are true renaissance men, with creditable work across several mediums, but those who fit such a description can probably be counted on one hand (Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, has claim to a finger).

Dylan has long been a graphic artist. In the first (and as yet only) volume of Chronicles, his semi-fictionalised memoirs, he describes how he "picked up the habit" of drawing from the late Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend in the early 1960s: "I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils and knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes." This interest would manifest itself sporadically throughout his career, with his visual work adorning the album covers of the Band's Music from Big Pink (1968) and his own early 1970s releases Self Portrait and Planet Waves.

In 2008, the Statens Museum in Copenhagen exhibited a large collection of his paintings called "The Brazil Series", supposedly based on Dylan's personal observations of the country on his travels. The Gagosian's show, "The Asia Series", is a sister project that takes south-east Asia as its subject. (The gallery's somewhat po-faced blurb claims that it is a "visual journal" that "comprises first-hand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape".) Despite its foreign themes, the exhibition represents an artistic homecoming for Dylan, whose compulsive image-making began in the nearby bohemian quarters of Greenwich Village, under the wing of Rotolo.

"The Asia Series", however, has been controversial for Dylan's unapologetic use of appropriated compositions: fans on the forum pages of the Expecting Rain website have identified the source images of several of the paintings, including a photograph of an elderly Chinese man and a friend by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in 1948. Perhaps even Johann Hari would blush at the scale of Dylan's direct referencing of other people's work -- from the central figures to the incidental background details, the artist seems to have faithfully reproduced every detail.

Michael Gray, author of the Song and Dance Man series of books on Dylan, was withering in his analysis: "[It] may be a (very self-enriching) game he's playing with his followers but it's not a very imaginative approach to painting," he wrote on his blog. Yet is Dylan's approach to painting so surprising? His work throughout his career -- in song, poetry and film, as well as visual art -- has been characterised by an exhilarating omnivorousness. The restless, mercurial energy of his music is partly derived from how each of his songs contains multitudes of other voices.

Folk music is an adaptive vernacular: it survives by evolving. Much of this process takes the form of one musician borrowing a line or verse from another and adding something new along the way. In the song "Trouble in Mind", Big Bill Broonzy sings: "I won't be blue always/Yes, the sun gonna shine/In my back door someday." In "Big Road Blues", the ever mysterious Tommy Johnson sings: "Lord, sun gon' shine in my backdoor, someday/A wind gon' change all blow my blues away." Such "floating lyrics" belong to no one and pass from one songwriter to another; their expressive power draws from their mutability, the sense that their meaning is at once unfixed and specific, that their significance is simultaneously personal and communal.

Dylan has applied the methodology of the maverick phrase to all of his output, from lifting a Bascom Lamar Lunsford line ("A railroad man, they'll kill you when he can and drink up your blood like wine") for his song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" ("They say that all the railroad men drink up your blood like wine") to piecing together fragments of Jack London novels and articles from Time magazine to colour his memoirs. His 2001 album Love and Theft was a manifesto in practice that celebrated pastiche as a liberating strategy: the final song, "Sugar Baby", took the melody and parts of the chorus from the 1927 show tune "Lonesome Road" by Gene Austin and Nathaniel Shilkret, for instance, and even the name of the collection was a nod to the historian Eric Lott's excellent book about minstrelsy of the same name.

Is pastiche, this loving theft, something that detracts from the quality of an artwork? Jacques Derrida's notion of iterability posits that a set of signs carries meaning because it is repeated, and that it cannot be saturated by any one context. Dylan's work, be it his painting, his music or writing, enacts this freedom from single interpretation, and that's why, for me, the best of it is endlessly rewarding. By repeating and assembling pieces of our shared cultural heritage, Dylan offers us a reflection not only of these new dark ages, these modern times, but also of the creative journey that has brought us here.

The Gagosian show may well be patchy -- Dylan's craftsmanship as a painter is unremarkable -- but to dismiss him for, in effect, applying the folk method to the canvas is unfair. Besides, has he been disingenuous? In the interview included in the exhibition catalogue, he says: "I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work." The implication is that, to Dylan, photographs and paintings are as "real" as people and street scenes. In a hyper-mediated world, the media artifact is surely valid as a source of inspiration.

Hat-tip to Neil Rennie, from whom I borrowed (appropriated? referenced? stole? pastiched?) the Tommy Johnson/floating line example.

Yo Zushi works for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Pointy Records

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Show Hide image

A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain