On Learning to Steal

“On Learning to Steal”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 77, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

I was watching some students in a gallery the other day, planted in front of a variety of different paintings, with sketch books. They appeared to be copying the paintings.

What exactly is the point of this, I wondered?

I went back to my cork-lined room, and sat in front of my plagiartron, typed in some search terms and found a couple of articles on plagiarism, did a cut and paste and produced, yes, this article. Not really.

But in the real world, some students and some well-known authors do a kind of cut-and-paste on their writing all the time. But what about artists? Is arts a plagiarism-free zone? Can artists just copy willy-nilly? Is anything original any more?

Who said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”? Did I? Does it matter that I might say I did, even if I didn’t? If I said I had am I lying or just being economical with the truth. If you don’t catch me out, shame on you.

Of course the point is many artists don’t get caught.

Now back to the students beavering away in the gallery. What are they doing and how is it contributing to their artistic development? When we learn creative writing for instance, we aren’t given passages of Hemingway to copy, or handed a Shakespearean manuscript to copy out the text to mimic the handwriting, as though that had something to do with the words used. Art teachers say copying has something to do with learning about design, the way the paint is applied, mark-making, colour choices, etc. But if this is true, why are the students sketching with a pencil, and with the absence of any passion — a type of forensic duplication, devoid of any creative insight. So, again, what are the students learning to do?

I suggest they are learning to steal.

Some will never progress beyond mere derivative work, while others will become truly proficient. The painters whose work I want to see are the ones who are not in the gallery with their sketch books, but elsewhere using their brains. Copying is essentially a pointless activity (like rote repetition of multiplication tables) and I wonder why the students put up with it — perhaps they don’t think either.

In our cynical sort-of-post-modern world, it does draw attention to what the students are doing, with other gallery goers looking over their shoulder; they become almost as interesting as the paintings, a type of performance art, perhaps an unintended commentary on the failings of art education.

But copying has been handed down over the centuries from atelier to salon to studio to today.

Some well-known artists have been accused of appropriating the inspiration of others to produce works they have claimed as their own. Critics have said this type of artist looks outward rather than inward, forgetting to acknowledge their sources. Artists accused of plagiarism may describe copying as an act of tribute, rather than overt theft, but that seems self-serving.

I think we look to artists to be the authors of their own work, to actually make the pieces they sign. The notion of atelier with employed painters completing pieces to be signed by the ‘master’, turns artists into the worst type of signaturist. I think real artists know this is a con. Why would an atelier artist recently show new work proclaiming that he had done them with his own hand?

In the end, it is the authenticity of the work through the intimate link between idea and result that defines genuine authorship and creativity, not merely the act of fabrication.

We certainly expect people to acknowledge their sources, and where there is suspicion of plagiarism, to have an explanation. Consider the similarities between Henri Matisse’s “L’Escargot” (1953) and Alma Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) of Obama White House fame, where there is an explanation.

Contrast this with the allegations of plagiarism involving Sam Leach’s “Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos” which won the Australian Wynne Prize and which is seen as having what are referred to as “heavy references” to Adam Pynacker’s “Boatman Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake”, produced some 350 years ago. The artist admits having failed to “reference” the Dutch work when he submitted to the competition. Academics said that had Leach submitted his work for academic assessment, he would have been accused of plagiarism. (source: Michaela Boland, “Spot the Difference: artists Sam Leach denies plagiarising Dutch master”, The Australian, 14 April 2010. http://www.news.com.au/national/spot-the-difference-artist-sam-leach-denies-plagiarising-dutch-master/story-e6frfkvr-1225853423386; accessed 5 October 2010)

Perhaps works of art should have footnotes.

As for the students, I still don’t know why they are being taught to steal.

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