The Art of Stealing, the Stealing of Art

Good artists copy, great artist steal.

What a better to way to start this text than with such copy-pasted cliché phrase, whose very authorship is even debated [1]. Trapped in our hauntological prison of infinite self-referentiality, it is not uncommon for concepts such as originality to be redefined and re-redefined in order to adapt, signify, and operate within the ever-evolving frameworks of collective semantics. The very verbal simulation which frames the coordinates of our understanding of the Universe – our Weltanschauung, if you may – is already conditioned fundamentally and structurally by the recursiveness of the media (language) through which it is conveyed, shared, communicated, replicated, etc. In words of Derrida “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” [2].

This being said, what does this abhorrent verbiage have to do with our everyday tangible experience of reality? For the tortured soul (if there is such a thing) of the artist/philosopher this impregnable, rhetorical and ontological impossibility of true originality can become the ultimate curse; the maddening and almost lovecraftian contact with the Real speculated by lacanian psychoanalysis [3] materialized in ever-failing attempts at achieving something beyond the virtuality of words and the fractal infinity replication which prevents culture, biology and the very matter that conforms the universe to become out of nothing or to say in other way: the scary realm of the boundaries of human creativity. From time to time, artists, designers, creatives of all sorts will get caught like petty shoplifters as they succumb in desperate acceptation of the fact that nihil novum sub sole: your narrator, being a wonderful example.

Wrocław is a central European city whose coat of arms features the severed head of John the Baptist. Both Nazis and the People’s Republic of Poland (Poland’s soviet satellite name during the Cold War era) took and modified this coat of arms to suit their political and ideological interest. The first to “purify it” from its Slavic elements, the latter to restore the “purely Polish identity” by means of eliminating its Germanic features [4]. With the fall of Communism in the last decade of the XX century and in a display of hyper-hauntological nostalgia, the city decided to revert the coat of arms to its 1530 version, albeit more stylized.

Despite the rather questionable relation that might exist between Wrocław and John the Baptist, I think the coat of arms, more specifically, the severed head of the saint in the center, really captures the deterritorialized historical trauma of a city that’s been under the control of several national, ethnical and political entities throughout the centuries.

Specially in its more recent form, the shut eyes – which can also be interpreted as the morbid blank stare of a lifeless, bodyless head – beautifully capture the drama of a displaced locality, somewhat hidden and even opposed to the geopolitical turmoil of the ever-grinding gears of the global capital Juggernaut (although only in appearance, as the thriving role of the city in international economic deterritorialization and reterritorialization trajectories reveal).

I found the stylized version of this medieval symbol very stylish indeed.

During the winter months, Wrocław’s industrial output – which translates in a statistically poor air quality mixed with greyness of the post-Soviet remnants- give the city a very peculiar, ghostly yet industrial, old yet productive and efficient atmosphere. I cannot help but to imagine this place as the very Petri dish of a techno-futurist counterculture, a breeding ground for a new and exciting artistic movement already soaked in a quite unique aesthetical ecosystem with all the exciting possibilities that entails. How to condense all these subjective perceptions into an actual visible display of cultural desiring-production? As a modern Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, I overestimated my role as a great artist and took John the Baptist’s head from the church and the state and their execrable incestuous relationship the Polish political scene has witnessed in recent years- not only by copying but by blatantly stealing the stencil-ish severed head (with some alterations, though: black tears as an exaggerated symbol of historico-cultural trauma, face tattoos as a rejection of old societal values and explicit challenge of well-established taboo and a sticking out tongue, both to exacerbate the morbidity of death in a severed head and as the iconic gesture associated with carefree and uncompromised youthful rebellion. While, the face was still retaining enough of the original features for people to be able to tell its wrocławian identity and origins).

Needless to say, the sole idea of John the Baptist’s head being reappropriated and its internal semiotic mechanisms hacked, corrupted and resignified by anything resembling a marginal, godless and iconoclast artistic counterculture was unimaginable for the establishment. Thus, after asking for permission for its public usage this was, of course, denied.

Yet, the question arises: what’s the value in asking for permission for an image which supposedly tries to break the mold and self-affirm itself if it has to ask for permission from the very repressive apparatus out of which’s rejection/negation it is born? In the humble opinion of the author of this text, that wasn’t a very punk move from me. Yet, here I am, malleable as water, adapting to the circumstances even if my attempts to circumvent the status quo failed miserably (not to say, humiliatingly).

Oh well, life goes on and at least I got an excuse to let loose my passion of using redundant words and quote postmodernist authors just for the sake of it.

Written by Andrès Maldonado Villarino

[1] Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal (

[2] “Of Grammatology”, tr. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, 1976. (Original French published by Éditions de Minuit, Paris, in 1967, as “De la grammatologie”), 159. There is a latter alternative translation by J.G. Merquior (1986). From Paris to Prague: A Critique of Structuralist and Poststructualist Thought. London: Verso, ISBN 0-86091-129-2, p. 220



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