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28 January 2008

Copy Cat Art

Art, in many forms, has always fascinated me. Portraits because each one tells as story (or hides one or hints at one). As often as I go to the National Gallery of Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Tate, I still tend to visit my favorites: Vermeer for his play with light, Matisse for his bold color, sculptors like Rodin for his power and Houdon for the way he brings marble to life. There are artists that I do not enjoy (though I can respect them): Edward Hopper is one. I find the sense of isolation in his paintings painful. And I will always bypass the "moderns" for a look at Rembrandt.

Our personal collection includes original work by Western artist Michael Koloski, Alaskan artist Rie Munoz and Maryland artist Mimi Little. When we lived in Alaska I worked for Munoz and was shocked when another artist seemed to copy her work. It was surprising to me that no one else in the art community was upset by it. True, Muonz's art is not the kind that will hand in the Louvre (though her tapestries are fabulous) but still I was surprised to find learn then that there is no copyright on artistic style.

This all comes to mind after reading an article in the Saturday (1/26) Washington Post. LOOK- ALIKE WORKS MAKE FOR AN UNCOMMONLY PROVOCATIVE SHOW. The piece by post staff writer Blake Gopnik, reviews and comments on Baltimore show by artist, Christine Bailey, who deliberately copied the work of another commercially successful local artist, Cara Ober.

As the reporter points out, "Why shouldn't Bailey work in Ober's style...[a sample of Ober's work is pictured below] it's one that been out there for a decade or two already, and is shared by painters working all around the globe." Basically Ober's work uses bits and pieces from other sources to create a montage of color and style.

Bailey questions if and how one can "maintain an ethical studio practice" while offering art that is commercially appealing. Finally she decided to "drop the facade." The question then became whether she could be "Old Navy to Cara Ober's "The GAP?"

There has been strong reaction to her exhibit: vituperative emails as well those in full support, from Ober whose first response was "When I saw the invite to the show of your 'new work' I felt like a mother whose children had been raped and murdered." Ober and Bailey have gone on to develop a professional email relationship and while Ober still does not like the idea that she was chosen because she is commercially viable, she does "recognize" that Bailey's goal was more than profit oriented.

According to the Baltimore Sun, "the incident raises the issue of artistic plagiarism, especially in collage, a genre of art where other works are appropriated on a regular basis and used to create new work. "

There has also been criticism of the reporters work. This from Art Park Blog:
"It's just a concept show. It builds an obvious fence between those who believe Bailey has created an intreguing experiement, and those who consider her work fake and unoriginal. Heck, you can choose the side of the fence you sit on without even seeing the exhibit. "

I haven't chosen which side I am on yet and, by Bailey's measure, that makes her exhibit a success because, she insists, "what she is trying to do is make people talk: "My idea on art is that if it doesn't get you talking it isn't working."

In my experience architects do not complain when their ideas become part of the culture, even when most people are unaware that their ranch house owes its roots to Frank Lloyd Wright. Palladio has a window named for him that is commonplace in today's larger houses. Chippendale is a style of furniture that is so often copied that there is little attribution now.

I don't know as much about music or dance or interior decoration though it seems to me that Martha Stewart gives her work to the masses. Her trademark disappears when the packaging is removed or the individual uses her instructions to create a wreath or some other project.

But what I draw from this is that each aspect of creativity tolerates "copying" in its own way. Some with disgust, some with tolerance, for some it appears to be the highest form of praise. Please not misunderstand. My reaction to plagiarism and copyright infringement in writing is outrage but what I am considering here is the idea that in other creative pursuits the reaction to "copying" is not the same.

Your thoughts are welcome. Can you tell that I am just beginning to think this through? I have always learned more through discussion than by monologue.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

A work of choreograhpy is protected by copyright. Choreographers, and even stage directors have sucessfully sued the artistic staff and producers of productions that imported the choreography (or directorial concepts) wholesale from another production (sometimes choreographed or taught to the subsequent production by someone who was in the cast of the original).

But in the fine art world there have always been movements. The Impressionists formed an entire school of painting in the late 19th century. Can one say that Pissarro "copied" Monet? Or vice-versa. In the Cubist period did Picasso copy Braque (or vice versa)? Can you tell one artist's Cubist painting from the other when you visit the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan? In the past there have been the Ashcan School, the Hudson River School, Fauvism, Op-Art and Pop-Art. Those exist alongside the unique talents of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt. But even some those old masters, as did the great painters of the Renaissance, had studios where they passed their techniques on to students, some of whom even contributed to the creation of a work now attributed to the master. They painted the robes, or the background while the master did the faces and the hands.

So, througout the ages, the History of Art supports what might nowadays be called "copycat" works, unlike the Theatre or literature where the laws on the subject are relatively clear.

Painters throughout the ages have been inspired by their predecessors. I own a Michael Parkes stone litho in which I can see homages to Varga and Maurice Sendak! He has said that he has at various times also been inspired by Dali and Alma-Taddema, and if you know those painters you can spot the echoes in Parkes's canvases. But they never would be mistaken for anything but a Parkes. He has developed a unique style while still incorporating inspirational homages.

However, when you get into modern, as in present-day, art, and one person's style might be deliberately mistaken for another artist's which would lead to consumer confusion ... then, there may be an issue for litigation. At least you would wonder WHY artist B couldn't, didn't, or wouldn't find his or her own style, distinct from, artist A. Mimicry of that sort (unless it's an artistic exercise to paint or sculpt in the style of A), makes B, if not a thief, then a hack.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Amanda, you've conveyed my thoughts far more eloquently than I could have. Art styles just like story plots are not copyrightable. Just as the recent kerfuffle over plagiarism shows, words put together in one manner are copyrightable, similarly, a particular rendition of the water lillies is copyrightable.

In many art schools, copies of the Old Masters is a laudable achievement. The closer it resembles the Master's the better the student's talent.

We read widely and deeply for the same reason. To learn how the greats do it, to analyze, to learn, to even for a while mimic, till we get our feet under us and can stand on our own.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Great food for thought -- thank you Amanda for the information about choreography. I thought of the Ashcan school as I wrote my entry this AM. The style of those artists are significantly different from each other and I always thought were labeled that way because their work was a departure from the prevailing style. The Hudson River School for me is just that -- a painting style where I have a hard time distinguishing one artist from another.

Excellent point about the student painters in Rembrandt's time.

Keira, excellent point about our reading as education in how we write. How often do we see a Regency writer give a nod to another writer (Eloisa James comes to mind)?

3:47 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Copying another artist to this extent is just strange IMO. Showing such work is even more bizarre. Historically, painters were trained by copying either "old masters" or their own studio master. Hence so many works "from the school of" floating around out there. But these works weren't really considered as boastable achievements by the student, except insofar as they had shown they had mastered a technique.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

We know what camp you fall into, Kalen. There is an interesting analogy between what Bailey did and what the students of the Old Masters did -- but I don't think this was a "learning experience" for Bailey. Her superiority offends me even as it makes me think.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post! As I mentioned in my response to Kalen's post last week, I love the way writers are inspired by/build on the work of other writers. I think for me the dividing line with any art--novels, paintings, plays, etc...--is if the artist takes the influence of another artist or makes it their own or simply appropriates pieces of the other artist's work without putting their own stamp on it. For instance, one can see echoes of Percy Blakeney and Peter Wimsey and André-Louis Moreau in Francis Crawford of Lymond, but Lymond is distinctly his own person, not a copy of any of them.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

There's a lot of copycat art in major museums nowadays, sometimes interesting and certainly not only "strange," as Kalen has it.

As usual, though, for me the example that comes to mind is from the movies, Gus Van Sant's 1998 not-quite-but-almost shot-by-shot remake of Psycho.

We found it fascinating, thought-provoking... and not superfluous. I think that Van Sant said something about performing Psycho again, rather like one might perform a Mozart concerto or Swan Lake.

Which brings me back to remarks I once made elsewhere, about how Eloisa James's ensemble romances (taken from old Elizabethan plots) made me think of the ways in which romance might be more like drama or dance than certain novel forms.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Patricia Rice said...

thought-provoking post, thank you!
As everyone notes, artistic style is often copied and praised as "in the school of..." The copies hanging in museums are genuinely works of art--showing all the attributes of technique and creativity as the original artist. I don't know if either of the artists mentioned in the article qualify as old masters, but the first person was at least creative and original. If the second person's work possesses equal technique or better, more power to her. One hopes she'll strive for originality.

I think, as writers, we can't compare directly. Certainly Shakespeare stole ideas from other writers, but he made them his own. All the vampire writers may have hit the market on the coat tails of the first bestselling authors, but on the whole, they've created their own worlds.

I don't think the artist copied entire works so much as style. I cannot think of any author who can reliably mimic another's style. And even if she did, as long as the story was her own, then fine. She worked at her technique and mastered it.

Stealing actual words would be the same as an artist completely copying the original and selling it as their own. "In the style of..." is NOT the same thing as copying stroke for stroke. Either way, what you have is a fake.

5:36 PM  

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