Friday, January 4, 2008

Art, Ethics, and Honor Amongst Thieves

"William Blake is damned good to steal from! "--Henry Fuseli

Earlier today I was faced with an ethical quandry. One of the e-groups I lurk upon had a post by a professor of Art History at an American university. She posted this message:

Dear All,

Here's a photograph and artist's statement of a Sofiia icon that one
of my students made through a difficult print-making process on raw
silk in 16 plate layers. The photograph doesn't do this piece
justice, but I love her interpretation of what Wisdom is and how to
portray it. The dominant color after all the layers were laid down
is a soft of warm lavender-grey (maybe jasper is the best descriptor).

Just thought you'd like to see it.

When I followed the link she had provided, I was astonished to recognize the work was plaigerized from a painting of Mary Magdalene by Richard Stodart that had been created in 1995 and has been widely distributed via the internet on various websites. How does one respond to this, especially when you consider we are considering the issue of grades as well as professional ethics?

As far back as 2001, issues of intellectual property and artistic license were discussed on the internet. In an article published by Wired, entitled Is It Art, or Memorex?, Reena Jana offered these key pieces of information:

"The laws aren't black and white. The nuance lies in the real purpose of the artwork using the borrowed images," said Barry Werbin, a partner at Herrick, Feinstein, a Manhattan law firm in which he heads a department focused on intellectual property and the Internet.

"If someone borrows an image and uses it non-commercially for educational purposes, then it's fair use," Werbin said. "But if an artist does so without permission to promote their own work, there's no question it's an infringement."

So, does that excuse the student's theft of the image? I'd suggest not, firstly as she promoted it as her own work, even if the medium used differed from the original piece of work. Secondly, it would be my contention that the understanding "educational purposes" would apply to the use of the image by the instructor and not the clandestine theft by the student. Most universities and educational institutions have established, and sometimes enforced, policies with regard to plaigerism, including use of intellectual property /ideas. Students are made aware that if an instructor can demonstrate the student has purloined material, the culprit will be dealt with appropriately by the institution.

As a friend reminded me, character and talent are two distinct entities. While we seek to enjoy creative expression within the arts, it is increasingly rare to discover talent teamed with innovation, for that is the essence of artistic genius. Art shows and galleries showcase works of art that are often nothing more than derivative pieces of work. One might quickly suggest that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but any art that is produced as a "copy" should be noted as such and proper credit attributed.

In the case of the student, the instructor hadn't taken the students to a museum to "copy" a masterpiece and learn from the experience. Instead, the student quite simply had plaigerized the work and apparently believed no one would be the wiser. [According to Black's Law Dictionary, the definition of plaigerism is "The act or instance of copying or stealing another's words or ideas or attributing them as one's own."(Black's Law Dictionary, West Group, 1999, 7th ed., p. 1170) ]

Jonathan Lethem published a noted article in Harpers, entitled "The ecstasy of influence: A Plagiarism" in response to Something Borrowed, an earlier article on the topic that was published in the New Yorker. Lethem's article deftly points out the thin line between influence and plagiarism. I have heard it argued at even Picasso and Matisse "copied" the works of others, and Andy Warhol would likely be the recipient of a litigious suit in our society if he were to offer his paintings in today's market.

In the 14th century, Petrarch answered these "justifications" and offered wisdom concerning plaigerism, although his focus was on the written word:

"He who imitates must have a care that what he writes be similar, not identical . . . and that the similarity should not be of the kind that obtains between a portrait and a sitter, where the artist earns the more praise the greater the likeness, but rather of the kind that obtains between a son and his father . . . we (too) should take care that when one thing is like, many should be unlike, and that what is like should be hidden so as to be grasped only by the mind's silent enquiry, intelligible rather than describable. We should therefore make use of another man's inner quality and tone, but avoid his words. For the one kind of similarity is hidden and the other protrudes; the one creates poets, the other apes."
-- Petrarch, Le familiari, XXIII (14thc), quoted in Gombrich, E.H. Norm and Form: Studies in the art of the Renaissance, Phaidon, 1971 (2nd edition), February 18, 2000

James Dean, an electrical engineer and artist, successful has presented renderings of "Old Masters" that humorously incorporate his cat, Pete. When one views the oeuvre of Dean, there is no mistaking these pieces as "original" in concept, even if homage is made to better-known works of art. Perhaps those artists and students who wish to purloin "good ideas" should reconsider such nonsense and but learn from Dean's approach.

Recently, there has been an increase of works "appropriated" via the internet, reproduced in some form by other hands and then sold through global channels. Legal steps have been taken by individuals as well as groups such as the Art Renewal Center to stop this activity.

It was with this body of knowledge that I debated what to do about the student who had copied Stodart's "Mary Magdalene" and submitted it for a grade to her instructor. Ultimately the question of artistic integrity versus technical process seemed to be the primary issue that plagued my mind. Consequently, I fired off an email to the instructor, citing Stodart's work, citing his website as well as one from another site that had been archived on the internet since 1999. This proved earlier "provenance" and I included a .jpg of his image for the immediate reference of the instructor.

Within hours of sending the email, I received the following response:

Dear Sharon (if I may):

Thanks for sending the image--it's beautiful. It seems my student lifted the idea. Very sad, especially as I watched her produce all 16 layers of her serigraph on raw silk and it's very beautiful. Anyway, I much appreciate the beautiful image.

Which "beautiful image" does the professor appreciate, the original one by Richard Stoddart or the serigraphed copy by her student? Ah, the nuances of words! As if to play a "trump", the instructor appended her name with a reference to her Ph.D, and a composite list of her credentials as a professor of art history at the university. I'm not sure what to make of it all, and I suspect the instructor will do nothing with the information I provided. If this is the case, the student will have learned much about art history, for its chronicles are filled with tales of art thefts and honor amongst thieves.

Please note: Within this blog I intentionally have not given appropriate attribution to the cited written words of the Art History instructor. This is because I wish to protect the identity of the individual, and I hope that a culture of shame isn't necessary for her to take appropriate action. One might also contend the concept of "fair use policy" herein applies.

NB: Legal Info for artists

1 comment:

Hope Marcus said...

Hi Sharon, this is an incredible article and you raise valid questions. Perhaps the professor's meek reply suggests that he doesn't believe any art is original, and therefore all the work his student put into the PROCESS qualified it ... all 16 layers of her serigraph. The student is learning the technicality of art, all the behind the scenes stuff of a process, but whether her project is original art begs the question of your essay. Defining ORIGINALITY is tricky at best. Having also been to Art Basel/Miami, qualifying art is an issue unto itself.