Cut it up and start again: making the old new or the last resort of the unimaginative?

david bowie absolute beginners

Jonathan Safran Coer did it with Tree of Codes, Williams Burroughs was famous for it, the Dadaists loved it and David Bowie has been at it since the 70s; is the cut-up technique really artistic or just a cop out?

I remember being in sixth form and watching Absolute Beginners in a media studies class. One of the boys turned to me and said “You like that David Bowie don’t you, well he gets all his lyrics from ripped up newspapers. You think it’s all deep and meaningful but really it’s just luck and none of it means anything, everything you love is a sham and all your idols are vapid hacks who pretend to sell your their soul for the £18 you make at your weekend job at a hairdressers.” He didn’t say it in those words exactly, he didn’t know I worked in a hairdressers, or the word vapid, but that’s what I heard.

If I’d known much about the cut-up technique I still wouldn’t have tried to explain the theory to him because it wouldn’t have made any difference. A lot of people dismiss it as a legitimate way to make art because it just sounds like luck. It doesn’t sound like it involves much skill or conscious decision making on the part of the artist, writer or musician, and isn’t that what we understand as art? An artist makes a deliberate choice to put a mark or word on a page, to add or omit something, and then present those series of decisions as their work of art. Here is what I am choosing to show you. If instead they’re saying, here is an accident that happened in my studio or on my typewriter today, is it still art?

A lot of people mistrust creative types because they seem to be having a great time, making money from their hobby, rather than hard work. Because jobs are not supposed to be fun or enjoyable and if you accidentally find yourself having a good time at work you better make sure you feel guilty about it at the very least. For some reason we seem to have forgotten that we make the world and that we don’t have to be bored shitless five days out of seven just to buy wider, flatter TVs and new shoes made in sweatshops by tiny blind orphans with bleeding fingers. But for most people that’s the choice they make and anyone who manages to get an easy ride, in their eyes, is suspect. If these artists, who are basically on a jolly anyway, start sticking price labels on accidents then that’s just taking the piss, really.

The cut-up technique, on the face of it, looks like it’s taking the work out of the process. But even if all you do is keeping using the technique until you come up with a combination you like, it still entails making a decision, and if art is a series of decisions presented to the outside world, then there’s nothing to make that decision less worthy than any other.

There are hucksters in every profession; art seems to have more than it’s fair share depending on who you ask. Taste is subjective and just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it worthless. (I don’t like football but apparently if you’re good at it you can command thousands of pounds a second and be in as many adverts for razors as you want.) Whether people like it or not, there’s no simple answer to what art is and isn’t, you’ll have to make that decision yourself.

If you liked this, follow me on Twitter @SallyWJones or check out my blogs on whether Hollywood still has a soul and the future of dystopian sci-fi.

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