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  • From Copyright to Copia:Marcus Boon's Buddhist Ontology of Copying
  • David Banash (bio)
Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.

Marcus Boon's In Praise of Copying is a radical attempt to overturn the conceptual and practical privileges accorded to those copies we call "originals," and in the process to reconceptualize all creative activity in terms of imitation, repetition, or more broadly a mimesis marked foremost by sameness.

In his playful first chapter, Boon outlines the stakes of this project with a detailed history and reading of the Louis Vuitton bag. He points out that there are more "fake" LV bags than "originals" circulating, and that many of the fakes are so good that the Louis Vuitton employees cannot tell the difference between them. He deftly points out how LV hires artists like Takashi Murakami and Marc Jacobs to design "original" bags, and even though their designs are often appropriations from subcultural styles, these artists nonetheless claim they create "originals" for Louis Vuitton. At the same time, it can paradoxically be more chic to carry a "fake" bag. Boon asks, "when original and copy are produced together in the same factory, at different moments; when a copy is actually self-consciously preferred to the original, we must ask again: What do we mean whey we say 'copy'?" (18). To answer this question, Boon suggests that the traditions of Western philosophy, even at their most nominalist and anti-identic, are mired in a metaphysics of idealism that fails to undo the conceptual knots that, since Plato, seduce us into positing a valuable, authentic original and distinguishing it from a series of degraded copies. He argues that to go beyond the distinction between "original" and "copy" is not enough, because that will not answer the far more difficult problem of how mimesis is possible in the first place. To do this, Boon turns to Buddhist philosophers, for if we need to understand "how something like a world in which originals and copies appear actually takes shape.… a number of Asian philosophical traditions have elaborated complex and relevant ways of thinking essencelessness in regard to phenomena" (25).

Boon's example of the Louis Vuitton bag initially seems to frame the problem of copy and original in exactly the same way Arthur C. Danto thought about Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes. Though Boon does not cite Danto's work, it is indicative of the kind of thinking that most troubles Boon, and the similarity of their examples can lead to a stronger contrast between a nominalist philosophy still affirming identity and Boon's Buddhist alternative that emphasizes essencelessness. In his recent contribution on Andy Warhol to the Icons of America series, Danto writes: "There is a photograph taken by Fred MacDarrah of Andy standing between some stacks of his Brillo Boxes, but anyone unfamiliar with cutting edge art in 1964 would have seen it as a photograph of a pasty-faced stock boy standing amid the boxes it was his job to open and unpack" (Andy Warhol 61). Danto spent most of his career trying to say why a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol is art while a brillo box is not. Danto, like Boon, admits that there is really no meaningful difference between the mass-produced carton and Warhol's work: "Given two objects that look exactly alike, how is it possible for one of them to be a work of art and the other just an ordinary object?" (Andy Warhol 62).

Danto's attempt to answer this came in part with his 1981 book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, and there he argues that art is essentially a matter of history, of a set of desires and concepts unfolding and coming to consciousness, and thus there really is an identity to art, though one that is developed provisionally, historically. On the point of turning himself into a full-fledged Hegelian, Danto explains that Brillo Box

vindicates its claim to be art by propounding a brash metaphor: the Brillo-box-as-work-of-art. And in the end this transfiguration of the commonplace object transforms nothing in the art world. It only brings to consciousness the structures of art...

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