Friday, April 13, 2007

If you're going to sin, you might as well be original

There's been a lot of buzz around the Internet about a piece of stolen artwork, and it's growing. Not just the buzz, but the scope of the theft.

Todd Goldman, an "artist" and online purveyor of pop-art T-shirts was holding an art exhibit of his works and somebody noticed a similarity between the art on one of the canvases and a webcomic drawn by Dave "Shmorky" Kelly in 2001. Fans of Shmorky researched, and the plot thickened. Among several versions of the work in question, one of them appeared, upon being superimposed with the webcomic, to have actually been traced from it! This wasn't merely an homage, but surprisingly blatant plagiarism. That wasn't all; further research of Goldman's (so-called) work turned up case after case of striking similarities to extant works found in various places on the web. It's hard to say where any of this is leading, or how much of this is a misunderstanding, but it seems that virtually nothing that Goldman has created is original. It's a fascinating story, and if you're not familiar, you might want to read about it and see the evidence yourself.

I'm not here to condemn Goldman, nor do I intend to defend him. What I want to consider here is the nature of plagiarism.

When I was in college, I took a lot of courses from a lot of different disciplines. However, not being much of an artist (on the technical side, that is; I like to think I'm creative), I ended up taking only one course from the art department, a course known as "Photomechanical Reproduction". In other words, we were making art with Xerox machines. It's been a heck of long time now since I was in that class, but as hazy as my memory is, I do remember the issues that it brought up on the subject of what art really is, the nature of originality and the legal aspect of fair usage. (Although I tried a number of different techniques throughout the course, my favorite images to work off of were money; for one project I made a stack of very authentic-looking zero-dollar bills using only the money I had in my pocket and the free supplies at the local Kinko's.)

You could scoff at such work being considered "art"--and you could probably come up with some snide remark relating the idea back to Goldman's dubious techniques--but there was really something to it, and over the years since then, I've used the things I learned repeatedly to make what I considered to be works of art, sometimes from somebody else's art as a basis, and sometimes from nothing at all; you can make rather interesting art on a Xerox machine with no source material at all, if you know a few tricks. Maybe I ought to scan and post a few I've done. But as usual, I'm getting off-topic. The question is: is copying another person's art something that can be art itself?

Webcomics artist Scott Kurtz put one of his own characters in a pose just like the original piece, and had him say the same line, but nobody considers that plagiarism, I assume. It's not just because Kurtz didn't trace the artwork like Goldman did; there are a lot of works in Goldman's portfolio that people are calling rip-offs that don't really look much like the thing people are claiming he ripped off. At the same time, something can be a blatantly stolen and still be somehow special and original because it's intended for parody purposes. Think "Weird Al" Yankovic, or better, a little panel I threw together in a couple minutes:

It doesn't matter so much that both the image and the caption are blatant copies; I'm not likely to get sued for this picture because I'm making a point with it, not trying to rip off Shmorky or Jim Davis. In many ways, intent has a great deal to do with whether something is considered plagiarised, doesn't it? If I printed out the original webcomic and put it on the wall of my office, people would see it and laugh, and nobody would have a problem with it, least of all the artist, who might even be flattered. Blow it up on a big canvas, tell people it's my original idea, and put a $5,000 price tag on it, and now we have a problem. An artist ought to have the rewards of his or her art and in the former case, I would be increasing the acclaim of the art, while in the latter, I'm taking money that should be theirs.

But people do take other people's artistic ideas and make money off of them all the time. I'm not just talking about parodies, which have some amount of legal protection, but stealing images in order to make an artistic statement that launches from preconceived notions of existing iconic images and ideas. How many people have made artistic statements launching from Grant Wood's "American Gothic"? (Contrary to popular belief, the image depicts a father and daughter, not a married couple.) There's something to the concept of taking a pre-existing idea and running with it in a new direction, or even taking it as it is and merely presenting it in a new fashion. Some artists, such as famously Marcel Duchamp, take items that are not not art, and present them as art.

Is there really such a thing as an original idea? Many great artists make their art by copying things they see in the world around them, or illustrating a well-known story. Even those that tend towards the more abstract still use concepts that we all understand on some level, whether it be the ordered, clean colored blocks of Piet Mondrian or the chaotic splatterings of Jackson Pollock. One might wonder what a change it would bring to the legal status of Goldman's work if he openly admitted the complete lack of originality, and stated proudly that his artistic genre was plagiarism. Really, why not?

The odd fact is that plagiarism is a very strange concept, one of those ones that is hard to define, but you "know it when you see it". When you were required to write a paper in school, you were probably admonished by your teachers to use the encyclopedia, but not copy your info directly out of it, but rather summarize. When you summarize or paraphrase, you state in your own words and sentence structures the meaning of someone else's writing. Since the words and the sentence structures are yours, you do not use quotation marks, though, of course, you must acknowledge the author of the idea. If you use the original sentence pattern and substitute synonyms for key words or use the original words and change the sentence pattern, you are not paraphrasing but plagiarizing, even if the source is acknowledged because both methods use someone else's expression without quotation marks. I copied most of this paragraph directly from another website about plagiarism in an attempt to be ironic, but is it plagiarism when I acknowlege having done it, despite lack of quotation marks?

Sure, Goldman stole the image, but in a way, the true originality of Goldman's method was the blatant manner in which he stole it. I don't know if anyone would call that art, though.


marauder said...

Wow, that site makes it look pretty damning, doesn't it?

I've had many thoughts on the nature of plagiarism myself. If I feel deeply inspired by your post and go off and write my own thoughts on plagiarism and paraphrasing, am I plagiarising you, or just being influenced by you? How about if I take your actual post and edit/rewrite it until it assumes "my" voice? (Personally, I think that could be fun if we could get enough people interested in doing it.)

In Shakespeare's day, there was no such thing as plagiarism. He lifted material wholesale from Holinshed's "Chronicles," from Chaucer's "Troylus and Criseyde" and from just about everyone else who ever wrote before him -- I've read some of the source material, and there's no question that he plagiarised by contemporary standards -- and yet we consider him to be the finest writer of the English language.

In a sense, doesn't retelling extant stories or redoing familiar pieces of art either build up our language and cultural heritage through the process of tying everything back into familiar stories, and enrich art by developing a visual language of symbols and memes? In a country where our national memory doesn't go back more than a few months and "Nick at Night" is considered a crash course in classic literature, don't we need more plagiarism rather than less?

Brucker said...

Feel free to lift passages wholesale from my blog, just so long as you give me proper attibution, a link to the source material, and a generous cut of the income I know you too are raking in from your blog.

Seriously though, plagiarism is a tough issue. In some sense, there really is no such thing as a truly original idea. If something were really truly and utterly original, we probably wouldn't even recognize it because of a lack of clear context.

Actually, the lack of original ideas sometimes disturbs me on a philosophical level. As a thought that often crosses my mind, it might make a good post: How do we know that our day-to-day communication isn't just a complicated form of parroting? In a sense, I've never said anything original in my life, I just recycle common words and phrases that I hear and/or read.

Visual arts face the same problem. How many cartoon cats are there out there? When Garfield first came out, I thought he bore a strong physical resemblance to Heathcliff, although he obviously has a different personality. All humor comics thrive off the idea of taking cliched ideas, giving them a slight twist and shoving them back in your face. Even a strip like "Bizarro" does that, they just give more twist than most.