Today’s rant is on the contentious topic of plagiarism in art. In a field where many of us learn by mimicking, where is the line drawn?
This is an issue that comes up in visual art a lot, particularly in community arts. Because unlike commercial art, the rules are not clearly established at the community level. Although this is a hobby for some, it is a career for others. Many of us are familiar with the sting of stolen intellectual property.
Let me give you a scenario that was discussed at our studio this week. An artist makes a product. They take that product to a market. Another artist goes to the market looking for ideas. Sees this one, goes back to their own studio and makes the same thing. This happens a lot on the lead up to Christmas when craft fairs are everywhere and many makers spend the year producing work for this time.
Where do we draw the line? Is it okay for that artist to make the object? Most of us, especially those who teach would say, absolutely! This is how we “fill the well” of our knowledge. This is how we practice and grow in the craft. It is a compliment to the maker. Is it okay then for the artist to keep that object? Or should they just use it as an experiment and through it away? I would argue that it is fine for the artist to keep the object. Okay, so if the artist has the object in their possession what are they permitted to do with it? Can they give it as a gift? This is where it gets murky. Because the original artist is attempting to make a living on this very premise.
Most of us would agree that it is not okay for the second artist to profit from it. It may not be illegal, but it is generally thought of in the community (the way I understand it) as not okay. So the second artist cannot go ahead and make a dozen and take it to another market to sell it.
Why? The second artist is also trying to make a living at their craft. Is this not how ideas spread? Is this not how great ideas become great? (Just look at Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque) One would agree that, at the very least, one should credit the original designer. Anyone who was taught how to cite a reference in an essay would recognize this. But, how do we do that in visual art?
There are ways. In pottery, if I, hands-on, made the pot in a class with an instructor, I personally, put both our names on the bottom of the piece. So no matter where that object ends up, it is clear who made it. As with the one I made with the assistance of Master Potter, Robert Shiozaki. I made the pot. And I will share it because I have added my own artistic flair to it. But I will not claim that throwing a vessel that large is entirely my work at this point. And because he literally had his hand in the clay, I would never dream of selling it. Not this one. But the next one is mine to do with as I please. I took the class to learn a skill to develop my craft. If a skill is learned in a classroom then the student has paid to “own” the skill. And the instructor has given that to the student.
Likewise, in my opinion, anything that has been put out to the public domain is available for use. I believe we are all teachers and students. All of us who produce work and let it leave the confines of our studio is for consumption. So that is taking it to a fair, gallery or putting it online. Then we just have to trust that the consumer is ethically responsible with our work. As we are a community, where possible, I usually contact the artist directly to make sure they are okay with what I am doing.
That may lead to a debate on where ideas come from. That will be another rant.
Please, please comment below. This is only my opinion. However, when I asked my instructors and mentors this question over the years their answers varied considerably. Hence the on-going debate.