Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields

>>Published: February 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2011


Genius borrows nobly.


Good poets borrow; great poets steal.


Art is theft.


No truer words. At once blood-boiling and eye opening, David Shields’ manifesto for an artistic culture in flux is: an analysis of past and current failures to move beyond our artistic comfort zones; a decriminalization of the appropriation (piracy, to be glib) of art of all mediums for use as a constructivists’ tool in creating new levels of artistic dimensionality; a found object in and of itself—one that conceptualizes a progressive theory for adaption and, to some degree, acquiescence that mirrors the thesis put forth in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art. Put simply: art is not “art” until society interacts with it. Our social contract, forever changing, defines what art is accepted as thus, when, and to what extent. Art is “art” when it impacts, when it challenges accepted norms, and when it denies culpability.

Because art is inspiration, absorption, and redistribution.

Is it fair to say that art is theft? Sure, to a degree. But the definition of theft—and the morality, or lack thereof attached to it, remains nebulous.



An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.


I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction.

In Reality Hunger, Shields offers an alarming stratum shift as his central conceit: like it or not, the traditional view of art, and the accessibility of art for reuse and manipulation, has been compromised by the digital age. The Internet exists as an open platform for the distribution of ideas, thoughts, whacked-out-of-your-mind proto-conceptualizations that have no business within a common sense structure. The Internet and global digital accessibility are the very definition of a Vox Populi—unrestrained, uncensored word of mouth. The ability to cast inspiration and aspersion with equal impunity. What hasn’t changed is our aversion to confrontation. I don’t mean confrontation in a traditional sense, but with respect to being challenged by not only what we have created, but with letting go of what we have created—accepting that our dear, precious children are amorphous, flexible, and not tethered to our singular interpretations. Ideas are offered less as artefacts, and more as languages, diction primed for translation and transposition.

Wolff’s The Social Production of Art is the unspoken linchpin on which Shields’ argument balances. The denotative meaning of art is something conventionally rooted in time and place, as elements of historical and socio-economical influence, affecting a world or an epoch but not necessarily defining it. The connotative construct, on the other hand, is what tears art from the aesthetic-only and places it firmly within the realms of transformation and confrontation, where images are not images but symbols with meaning beyond their visually inscribed depths. In Shields’ patchwork manifesto, the adoption of words, images, and sounds across continents and through generations, with little fear given to the possible ramifications the appropriation of such work—displaced from their original culture, time, and intent—might have on an existing subset of social order, is the key to growing beyond our simple pre-existing pigeonholes of plot, genre, fiction, nonfiction, etc.



Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp’s “Fountain”—urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen.


You don’t make art; you find it.

You pull literature from the world around you—from art, experiences, your very being. Your life isn’t linear, easily boxed into a square room on the 14th floor of a concrete obelisk at the heart of a city both isolated and not. Your life is shuffling through memories, thoughts, moods, feelings, and interpretations of events—none of it trickling out in anything approaching a pre-defined linear progression.

Shield seeks to throw out the existing forms—to do away with plot and, in the absence of plot, discover something more akin to the reality of experience. However, the thrust behind this challenge assumes that all art must challenge in the same fashion—discarding the same artifices of old, whether they benefit the concept or not. Should the concepts that fit more discretely into such a mould be more readily filtered through the guise of the new and exciting and very, very real? The manifesto, a call to arms for a new definition of artistic integrity, dilutes the simple pleasure of art for art’s sake, somewhat effacing the idea of aesthetic motivation warranting equal merit to avant-garde conceptualization and the splintering of accepted modes of operation.



The world exists. Why re-create it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?

Does re-creation eliminate understanding or draw further attention to the possibilities therein? One’s definition of wisdom is not so easily constricted. Contemplation can just as easily refer to the presence of the real world, carved out of one context and placed within another. Do I feel a greater amount of contemplation is required before the commitment of pen to paper or brush to canvas? Absolutely. Does that negate the possible revelations that may follow rather than precede the art? Not at all. The recreation of the world and the reimagining of the world are not necessarily exclusive concepts. They are just as commonly married together, decided upon out of order, and able to impart wisdom to varying degrees in any number of circumstances, depending on the interpreter on hand.



Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics.


What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her own limitations.


I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.

The limitations of the self, both pre-existing and stumbled upon through the creation of art or literature of any kind, can be discovered and overcome through methods of old, but Shield argues that the true test of one’s ability to overcome their limitations rests with the story being told, how the story is told, and in what sense the story’s redistribution is expected or not expected to upset all preconceived (naively so) iterations. The challenge is to accept the lies that might be spun from your truth, or the truth from your lies, and to willingly embrace all eventualities as equals—redefinitions of the private self made public.

This is art’s challenge—faced equally by the artefact, the process, and the creators: to accept adaptation from external sources—the good, the bad, and the truly offensive misdirection that might occur. Because there is no such thing as misdirection in a world of digital absorption and immediate global interpretation and reinterpretation.



To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.


He who follows another will never overtake him.


You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.

Is the musician Gregg Michael Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, an artist or a thief? When he culls seconds worth of samples from hundreds of artists, is he stealing or reinterpreting the art through a new and entirely acceptable lens? What about Beyoncé, caught for appropriating near identical choreography in one of her most recent videos without due credit to the originator—is this theft? Artistic reimagining? Are transparency and responsibility the deciding factors between which appropriation artists we accept and which we aim to crucify on the altar of public shame?

To steal from one is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. There isn’t a university student alive today who isn’t familiar with this axiom. Art, like academic research, has its roots in the inspiration of many. In an era where the acquisition and use of another’s art is tied intrinsically with the medium used to promote and further an individual artist’s identity, some say that digital rights protection is the answer—to restrict, through anti-piracy measures, the ability to download and appropriate another’s art for one’s own means. To others, anti-piracy measures are an opening salvo, a challenge to those willing to embrace the opportunities provided through a digital global village and circumvent the paranoid, the “artists” who refuse to accept a very simple truth that has been at the core of all art: that without the public’s involvement, without physical or conceptual connotative responses to a piece of work, art is not “art.”



What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s