In late January, Shia LaBeouf tweeted to his 132,000 followers that his recent so-erratic-it’s-no-longer-erratic behavior and repeated acts of plagiarism were actually all part of a piece of performance art: A commentary on “social media absurdity” and copyright in the digital age. He named three muses in this artistic undertaking: Training Day screenwriter David Ayer, MOMA poet laureate Kenneth Goldsmith and meta-modernist artist Luke Turner.
While the three men — each heavyweights in different artistic arenas, each with a very different relationship with LaBeouf — didn’t immediately speak up, they’ve now all acknowledged their role in the young actor’s social experiment. As it turns out, though, they don’t all agree about whether he’s gotten it right.
“While filming Fury, Shia and I had many in depth discussions about art theory, performance and social media as a performance medium,” Ayer told TIME in a statement. “Shia is a committed, brilliant and fearless artist and will bring that commitment to anything he does. Shia is on a creative journey right now, and I am sure he is pleased with the conversations it is causing.”
Kenneth Goldsmith, on the other hand, has never met or been contacted by LaBeouf — and he thinks the “creative journey” Ayer described leaves something to be desired.
Goldsmith told TIME that he had never heard of LaBeouf until the actor started quoting the poet extensively on the web, claiming the words as his own. While these acts of plagiarism caused some victims like Daniel Clowes to consider legal action, Goldsmith wasn’t among them: “I thought it was great,” he said. “You know, that’s what I do.”
Normalizing plagiarism is Goldsmith’s bread and butter. He’s written a book about the subject and discussed it on the Colbert Report, in his classroom at the University of Pennsylvania, and even at the White House. “In my class, my students get marked down for originality,” he said. “They must plagiarize well and convincingly, and I don’t think [LaBeouf] has done that so far. Quite frankly, that’s why people have been so angry with him. Had he been a better plagiarizer, a smarter plagiarizer, people actually would have been admiring of his action rather than scornful.”
“It’s hard to do this stuff well, ” Goldsmith continued. “You can’t just start cutting and pasting randomly and think that people are going to be convinced by it. If he were in my class, he would have gotten a very bad grade.”
At least LaBeouf can find solace in the fact that he’s getting an A for effort. Goldsmith, who “love[s] the idea that we are collaborators without ever collaborating,” appreciates LaBeouf’s work to bring the discussion of copyright into Hollywood — especially since, as he explains, “plagiarists like Richard Prince and Jef Koons make millions of dollars recreating other people’s work. In every other world, it is a legitimate strategy.”
Meanwhile, LaBeouf and his third (and probably closest) collaborator Luke Turner have literally brought the plagiarism conversation right into Hollywood by setting up a performance art installation called #IAMSORRY in a Los Angeles gallery.
Visitors are asked to pick up one of an assortment of objects (including a bullwhip and a pink ukelele), and then step behind a black curtain. They then have the opportunity to interact with both the object and a seated LaBeouf, who wears a suit and paper bag reading, “I am not famous anymore,” over his head. Some have read LaBeouf mean tweets written on small pieces of paper; still others have held his hand as the actor weeps.
While Turner didn’t comment about the nature of their relationship, he did email over a press release for the event which read, “Shia LaBeouf is sorry. Sincerely sorry.”
Goldsmith offered us further insight into the apologizing: “Normally when these kind of scandals break what we see is a James Frey — people go out and apologize and he’s shamed and everybody’s shamed… [LaBeouf] plagiarized and instead of apologizing, he decided to tap into the vast body of strategies that have been developed really over the last hundred years, and used that as a defense instead of a typical apology.”
Here’s the good news: If LaBeouf hears the news that he’s disappointed his hero, all he has to do is what comes most naturally to him — apologize.