mike tremblay October 2, 2011

What is a magpie and what has it got to do with artists?

English: A juvenile Australian Magpie (Cractic...
An artist? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have posted and written about how people learn to be artists by copying the art of other artists. As I put it, a bit like copying Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare thinking it will help you be a better writer. I see students copying paintings in art galleries as essentially learning to steal, not developing autonomous and authoritative creativity.

The history of art is full of copyists, fakers, as well as artists whose work has been appropriated by less creative (usually male) others. And there are artists whose work fills the sidewalks of cities, with dreary scenes, painted in predictable formats to fit in the luggage of tired tourists who need evidence of the visit.

And there is the art that stops us in our tracks, and changes our world forever: we weep in its power, reflect on it, are challenged by it, never bored, are overwhelmed by its subtley, timelessness. It is  the shock of the new. This is not the shock of the shock itself; the sort of things kids do by writing dirty words on the side of buildings to get a rise from the neighbours, or swearing in front of the parents — mere juvenalia and the sort of art produced by students in art schools who churn out starry eyed people whose greatest shock in life will be the realisation that they will never be famous.

So what about magpies? Well, don’t they steal shiny things, and hoard their ill-gotten harvest? Don’t some artists simply thieve away, copying others, depending on other creatives for inspiration?

Languages are full of words which writers get to combine any way they like, as long as they don’t deliberately copy another person which we call this plagiarism. We often hear sequences in one musical composition that occur in another, but a different context, but without formal references, but inspiration is evident. In the same way that we don’t footnote every word we use, we must acknowledge some creative ownership of sequences of words produced by another person.

So, when is an artist like a magpie? When they pretend to be creative, and importantly, when they lack autonomous creativity, in themselves, and depend on being stimulated solely by the work of others. A harsh standard perhaps.

And when is an artist not like a magpie? Now that is the interesting question!

Email me with artists assessed against my Magpie Index and let’s see what we have.

The Magpie Index

The Magpie index has these ‘chunks’: 1: thieves, 2-3 copiests, 5-7 creators, with 4 the transitional score:

  • thief: unrepentant plagiarist, counterfeiter, faker
  • copiest -2: mostly copied work, and little evidence of underlying messages, work is mainly mute or pointless
  • copiest -1: some interesting ideas, and evidence of having something to say, but may be immature and perhaps too ‘on the nose’ to have any deep impact
  • maturing: evidence of creativity that comes from within more than from others; this is a transitional score between copying and creating
  • creator +1: mainly original art work with evidence of some, perhaps only glimmerings, of something to say
  • creator +2: frequently challenging work, evidence of original perceptions and ideas being presented, work is thoughtful and worth more than 20 seconds of your time
  • creator +3: autonomous, original, changes fundamental perceptions, evidence of authority, strong though not always evident messages

A final note is that the Magpie index is not ageist; younger artists are as likely to fail as older artists. Or to put this another way, older emerging artists are as likely to score in the creator categories as the hot young things that fascinate the ‘art establishment’.

‘nough said.

Technical Details on the Magpie Index: The Russian “United Art Rating”

This is an artist rating service of the Artist Trade Union of Russia and which uses the following scale for rating artists (nationally and internationally) [click here for details]

  • 1 – an artist of world fame, tested with time (for more than a century).
  • 1A – a world famous artist.
  • 1B – a high-class professional artist with remarkable organizational skills, who is popular and in demand.
  • 2A – a high-class professional artist with a bright creative individuality.
  • 2B – a high-class professional artist, recognized and in demand with the art-market and public.
  • 3A – a professional artist with a recognizable individual style.
  • 3B – a professional artist, recognized and asked for in the art market and by the public.
  • 4A – an established professional artist with creative potential.
  • 4B – an established professional artist, who is in demand in the art market.
  • 5A – a formed professional artist with creative potential.
  • 5B – a formed professional artist.
  • 6A – a forming professional artist with creative potential.
  • 6B – a forming professional artist.
  • 7 – an amateur artist with perspective evaluation of specialists.
  • 8 – an amateur artist.
  • 9 – an artist-beginner.
  • 10 – an artist-scholar.

I like the fact this scale enables me to distinguish between artists qua artists and artists that focus on the market. The categories also distinguish creative aspects (A) and one category higher than the same artist with a market focus or popularity (B). This helps distinguish between the pull of the market from the push of the artist.

I think the Artists Union would approve of my notion of magpies, and may even agree that there are vampire artists.

Now, how can we apply this to art education to ensure that the ‘vampire’ art schools are distinguished from truly inspirational educational environments. Then I’ll be even happier! And so will so many people who want to explore their creativity.

For those so inclined, it is known that there are historical chains of connection between Nobel laureates and innovative research work. Would it be possible to chain link the artists together (apart from the traditional approach to grouping artists in schools as such) to identify particularly productive chains of innovation and association.

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