Picasso Sleeping Woman(Femme nue couchée),1932
It has taken me a while to write another post, since I felt frustrated and distressed after I was told (by more than one person) that my work had been copied (by more than one person). Now, how to write about this subject without sounding arrogant and self righteous? How to avoid falling into self-pity, anger and frustration? How to express my thoughts without being dismissed as a delusional person? (one of the copycats told me I was delusional since I was not an artist and my work was not worth to be copied). By summoning a bunch of Renaissance artists, a writer, Steve Jobs and what an indie film maker had said about originality.
Internet has more than ever highlighted the fast and superficial culture we live in, so it’s quite obvious that if an entrepreneur and marketing guru says something that sounds convenient that statement will spread like a gospel. Steve Jobs said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal“, then credited that phrase to Picasso. There isn’t any evidence that Picasso said those words and one of the strongest theories as to why Jobs said so is that he needed to “appeal to authority" in order to reinforce the credibility and force of persuasion of his statement (whether Jobs used that sentence to acquit allegedly stealing the idea of “Windows System” from Xerox Parc is not something I’m able/willing to discuss). However, it seems that those words might be a rephrasing of a passage from T.S. Eliot's book ‘The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism’ (1920):
“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
If you were to research the origin of that quote (1) you would find several other artists, writers and musicians having maintained very similar belief on the subject. While studying history of art at school, I was struck by Raffaello di Sanzio’s method of studying and drawing inspiration from the masters of his time: he was convinced that by imitating them he was not involved in plagiarism, but rather engaging into an activity that would enrich him culturally and artistically, and by studying and imitating the masters he could then develop his own voice and become a mature artist. “Lo sposalizio della vergine” (1504, now held at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milano) was his first dated and signed work, inspired by Perugino, Bramante, and Leonardo (2), and many elements of the composition of that painting were re-elaborated after seeing the masters’ artworks in Rome and Florence. However, Raffaello had intelligently re-elaborated and interpreted some concepts used by those masters bringing them to another level and creating his own language; that is why he is considered one of the greatest artists of the late Rinascimento.
Observing, studying, and reproducing classics made by masters of the past is what students in traditional art schools like the Italian Accademia of Belle Arti do for a few years while working towards their degree. Repetition and practice are key to develop your own style.
Above: Marble sarcophagus with bas-relief depicting the mith of Melanger (detail), Imperial Roman,early-mid-2nd century CE. Archaeological Museum,Instabul.
Below: Picasso, Head of a Woman, Left Profile (Marie-Therese) (Tête de Femme,profil gauche[Marie Thérèse], Boisgeloup, 1931 (3)
I feel uncomfortable with the way this concept has been taken and twisted by people that have no creative spark, who have easy access to so many designs and ideas for free with a touch of a button. What the artist will add to what they have seen, studied, researched and processed through their intellect, bringing newness and originality to an artwork, is what makes the difference between a creative and copycats (no matter how skilled or famous the copycats are). The work of the creative will then stand out, be perceived to have pathos and will speak directly to the heart, rather than just pleasing the eyes. However the lack of understanding of this long process and the disrespect for the original creator has become so widespread that plagiarism is now accepted as a norm rather than seen like wrongdoing and therefore condemned. It’s easy and convenient for a copycat to ignore the amount of damage they do, not only financial, but also moral including the physical suffering and anxiety caused by this stressful situation. Plagiarists drive many artists away from the internet, thus contributing to make their work less visible. I need to write once and for all about this issue, as I feel I’ve been misunderstood and because my experience with copycats has had the effect of making me set my Instagram account to private, not show my new works (which is damaging as I’m not able to sell them through internet) and close my Tumblr. While it is indeed true that “Copycats are here to make money. Artists and designers are here to make a difference” it is also true that artists and designers (especially the less visible or the emerging ones) have bills to pay and need money to fund their work. In many years of blogging I’ve seen talented and creative people being put off by copycats and plagiarists, their original work devalued, despite being so generous in sharing and inspiring others in the way creative people do. All this is really sad and I wish that the people who have used the quote “Good artists copy, great artists steal” as a way to justify their ill behaviour will someday have to give back what they have taken and face to the fact they have been stealing indeed.
I will conclude by quoting one of my favourite film makers, Jim Jarmusch (4) who simply put it this way:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to’."
(3) images 2-3 copyright© 2012 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York. Images 1-3 Artworks by Pablo Picasso © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
(4) MovieMaker Magazine #53 - Winter, January 22, 2004