Lethem on art and identity and betrayal:
We are so prone to feeling betrayed by the artist in some way. Because the art does something so extraordinary to us that then we find out some detail. “Oh! He stole that from Willie Dixon.” “Oh! He beat his wife.” “Oh! He picks his nose in public.” “Wait a minute. He made that thing that changed my life. This is incongruent. I don’t like it!” That’s why we get so betrayed by the knowledge of appropriations, because we’re holding art to this very weird standard where it is actually about us. It’s about our own lives.
On T.S. Elliott and art that lets you cite:
T.S. Elliott has this appendix to The Wasteland where there are all these citations. We’ll put aside the fact that probably no one ever bothers to read that. But it’s there. He tried. It’s right there. But if a painter makes a canvas, it does not have room for footnotes on it. And a lot of art, the form doesn’t invite the same kinds of embrace of transparency. The specific gestures just don’t work. So what do you do? There might be follow-up. You could speak in an interview, you could make a gesture. But you know what? Not everyone wants to do that. Not everyone wants to be interviewed about their work at all. They want to just make it. And that’s okay.
On Led Zeppelin and Willie Dixon vs. Paul Simon and Graceland, and the axes of judging appropriation:
There are sort of two primary axes on which we make the individual judgment. One is: degree of transformation and the other is degree of transparency and or citation. In other words, how much do they really make something different out of what they appropriated? And how much did they make it easy to see that there was someone else’s gesture behind their own?