By Joanne Mattera
Appropriation, duplication, imitation and, yes, plagiarism, have been increasingly in evidence in the encaustic community. In a recent round-table discussion we addressed the ethical dilemma posed by work that looks as if it’s made by an established artist but is not.
I bet you can identify the artists whose work I’m describing here with an economy of words: Arrows. Formal compositions comprised of linear elements secured with tacks. Geologic sculptures and prints. Fantastical biology. Found photographic portraits used as the basis for paintings with a poetic narrative. Of course you can!
While none of the aforementioned elements are unique in and of themselves, the specific ways these individual artists have developed them into a unique vision and recognizable style, often with specially devised techniques and hanging systems, is most definitely theirs and theirs alone. When those unique elements are copied by another artist so closely as to be identified with the original artist, there’s a problem for both the original artist and the imitator. And this problem presents an ethical dilemma for the entire encaustic community.
Several members of the ProWax group addressed the issue in online conversation recently. What sparked the conversation was seeing work by a few artists whose recent efforts so closely resembled the highly visible and ongoing bodies of work by other artists in the community that the specter of copying was impossible to ignore. Is this a widespread problem? The numbers seem to be relatively small at any one time, but the instances of imitation are jaw-droppingly bold. We’ve seen them online and in galleries. Some teachers have even undertaken to instruct students in the style of certain artists, without permission, thus ensuring a steady stream of imitators. Maritza Ruiz-Kim, editor of ProWax Journal, wrote an essay on the topic in the first issue of our online publication. Here the discussion developed as a roundtable after we saw the most recent round of doppelgangers. An edited synopsis follows.
Pamela Winegard Appropriation is something being grappled with in the art world all the time. Legally it’s very difficult to do anything about. Ethically it’s a very polarizing issue. You cannot copyright an idea.
Paula Roland There are conceptual reasons to appropriate. An example is using someone’s image as a “found object” in a collage, or Andy Warhol appropriating the image of Campbell’s soup cans. And let’s not confuse being influenced by someone’s work with using their themes, colors, processes, and [creating] the actual “look” of it. That’s copying. Yes there is the school of “something in the air” where people come up with the same discoveries simultaneously, unbeknownst to each other, on different sides of the planet. This is not what we’re talking about.
Pamela Winegard I should preface this with IMHO: If you are teaching workshops and you are freely teaching technique, the idea is that the student will absorb the technique and translate that into their own voice. Teaching the technique puts the technique into the public domain. Hence many exhibition organizers indicate that they don’t want student work, knowing that students often emulate their instructor’s work. They want mature work, work the student creates on their own, developed from study over time from the learned techniques and skills.
Elise Wagner The Internet and YouTube have created an “all you can take” mentality. I had a student this past weekend who wanted to know exactly how I do a specific texture. There are things I teach and things I do not. It is vital to be a generous teacher but to protect that which is yours, that which you have developed over time. I’ve already altered my teaching as a result. It is necessary for your work to continue to stand out, and it won’t if all your students are doing the same thing.
Jeff Schaller I think that happens more frequently when people teach a medium or a process rather than the fundamentals of painting.
Nancy Natale My view of copying is that the doppelganger doesn’t have the oomph of the original. However, I purposely do not teach what I do in my own work. Why encourage copycats?
Wayne Montecalvo There have been a few times that I’ve made artwork and learned later that it was very close to someone else’s. So I stopped doing it and tried to think where I came up with the idea in the first place. Similar ways of investigation are one thing, but work that looks too similar to another artist’s work can be embarrassing. I think most people would stop once they make the realization. In the end it helps no one.
Mindy Nierenberg It’s a thorny issue when artists share a similar aesthetic, which is not a rare thing. In my opinion, one has to respect the work of the artist who has been there first and back away if one’s own work is too similar. The combination of elements that go into creating a work of art is endless, and when a similarity too close for comfort is discovered it’s time to head in a new direction. There have been times when I’ve seen someone’s work that’s in the sweet spot of “this is exactly my aesthetic, uses materials I use, colors that call to me…and I wish I had done that!!!” And I walk away with a bittersweet feeling.
Or there was a time when I started working on something that excited me and then found out it was a similar path to someone else. That work was never shown and I went in another direction. All of this is a very different thing than someone out-and-out copying someone else’s work and calling it their own.
Laura Tyler I wish there was a way to explain to people how appropriation is [also] damaging to the person doing the appropriating. I’ve tried to engage on this topic, but some artists take it poorly. I also agree with Wayne that appropriation is hard to see in your own work. We’re all participating in the same conversation more or less, right? What happens when what’s intended as a counterpoint comes across as mimicry?
Christine Aaron I think the thing that surprises most of us is that a fellow artist would be so blinded by their own recent explorations to not see or identify how it “speaks” another artist’s name (and that’s assuming the borrowing/copying isn’t intentionally done).
Nancy Natale I had the experience of being in a critical workshop with an artist who was making some work that pretty obviously copied recognizable work by another artist in the encaustic community. When the teacher asked the copier during the critique why s/he was making such derivative work, the copier professed ignorance and failure to see the resemblance. We in the class were all aghast that she could be in such denial. I still can’t believe that s/he didn’t know. Did s/he expect us all not to mention it? I guess my point is that such derivative work should be mentioned to the copying artist. Otherwise s/he may keep making it, either out of ignorance or thinking that no one has noticed.
One caveat, however, is that if someone arrives at a similar style or process via an evolution of their work, this could be legitimate and she is not necessarily copying. However, if the work just appears suddenly out of the blue and it looks like a copy, then you can be pretty sure it is just that.
Kate Miller Why would an artist want to imitate work that is “signature ” for a contemporary colleague? I don’t understand that and would find it most disturbing. The encaustic world is still small enough that these “signature” works are readily recognizable so copiers, if they are showing, would be seen outright as imitators. Professional artists know better.
Graceann Warn The discussion comes at an opportune time, as I put together the topics for a workshop I’m teaching next month. I had planned to stress the importance of content but will also talk frankly about the “A word” [appropriation], since I’ve been stung a few times myself. The best story: When I was asked to be a juror for a major national show, an obvious version of my work came up on the screen. I later said it was work that looked like I had used my less dominant hand to make. It was made by someone who had taken classes from me—a professed (shudder) fan. It’s a small world we inhabit and what goes around most assuredly comes around.
Jeff Schaller Somebody once said about my painting, “I could have done that.” I replied, “But you didn’t and I did. Now you can’t because that would be copying.”
Joanne Mattera And that brings us back to the crux of this round table, as Graceann’s and Jeff’s comments illustrate. It’s happening, and it’s not flattering.
Laura Tyler So an artist can spend years, decades even, arriving at something spectacular and find that in an instant, practically, it’s become an encaustic meme?
Mindy Nierenberg Ethics are important to uphold in any profession, and as artists we are (or should be) a community looking out for each other and having each other’s backs.
Your voice in this conversation is appreciated. Have you seen the work of artists who imitate others? Have you said anything? If so, what was the result? Has it happened to you? What did you do? Have you used another’s ideas as the basis for your own work but not taken the idea far enough from the source? This is a chance to speak frankly on the topic. The only caveat is that we ask you not call out anyone by name. The point is to discuss, not shame. Thank you.
A few links to recent articles on this issue of copying
- Stealing an idea and getting funded for it: http://hyperallergic.com/139769/native-activist-charges-art-students-with-plagiarism/
- Jerry Saltz on Zombie Formalism: “Artists who paint this way are getting lost in the onslaught of copycat mediocrity.” Read more: http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/why-new-abstract-paintings-look-the-same.html
- Advice about plagiarism from a faculty handbook: http://faculty.academyart.edu/resource/tips/1768.html
- Advice from a blogger for newbies and hobbyists: http://askharriete.typepad.com/ask_harriete/2014/02/i-love-your-work-and-want-to-make-one-for-myself.html