Copying in the Visual Arts

by Marian Cousijn

  • Datum 27-01-2016
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For Dutch online journalism platform de Correspondent Marian Cousijn organized the Artfest talk show devoted to art and copyright; The grey area between inspiration, bor rowing and plagiarism has traditionally been very murky.

When is something a great work of art? This question will most likely never get a definitive answer, but in general people agree that originality is an essential element of great art. If I copy the oeuvre of Picasso, that doesn’t make me an equally great artist. Yet the importance of originality in the arts (including film and literature) is regularly overrated. The statement “good artists copy; great artists steal” hits the nail on its head.
As a first-year student of art history, a course entitled “Thieving” taught me that the practice of borrowing, quoting, referring and just plain copying is as old as art itself. For centuries, imitation was the ultimate aim of art: not only imitating nature, but also imitating existing artworks. It was only during the nineteenth century, with the emergence of reproduction techniques such as photography, that the visual artist acquired the status of an artistic genius and the idea of originality became so important.
Yet good thieving continued to be common. Monet painted more than eighty versions of his famous water lilies. Picasso based whole series on work by his predecessors. And in the mid-twentieth century, precisely thanks to reproduction techniques, there was even a whole stream of artists who did nothing but copy. Take Elaine Sturtevant, who built a career based on copying artworks by pop-artist friends such as Andy Warhol. Or Sherri Levine, who plagiarised existing photos by taking a photograph of them and presenting herself as the author of this newly created work of art. Thanks to the worldwide circulation of images on the Internet these practices, collected under the title “appropriation art”, are still very topical. That becomes clear in the practical work of Richard Prince, who got into trouble as early as the 1970s for consciously copying pictures by other photographers. He is still making waves, now by using other people’s Instagram photos and selling them forhuge sums as legitimate works by Richard Prince.
Yet, as an artist, this approach doesn’t always go unpunished. Copyright exists with good reason: It protects the rights of makers who would not otherwise be able to earn money with their work. But the grey area between inspiration, borrowing and plagiarism has traditionally been very murky in the arts. Where exactly is the boundary? You regularly read news reports about artists who sue each other because they steal or their ideas get stolen.
These conflicts especially emerge when there’s a lot of money at stake. The best-known artists of our era, from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, have all been accused of plagiarism at some stage. A topical question is that of the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, who was found guilty after he made a painting based on a photograph. But if that really is plagiarism, then the verdict has huge consequences for the visual arts. It means that the work of Marlene Dumas, who often paints from news photos, may well be a breach of copyright. Just like the work of Picasso, Rembrandt and Da Vinci. Or an artist who was once regarded as one of the most original: Vincent van Gogh. He made dozens of paintings literally based on works by Delacroix, Rembrandt and Millet. Does that make him any less great as an artist? Can the law really decide about art? It remains a fascinating field. One thing is clear: where there are rules, there will always be artists to break them. And it’s precisely that which can yield the very greatest art.

Marian Cousijn writes about the visual arts for De Correspondent. She also presents Artfest, the art talk show without an urge for evidence. The January 28 edition was about art and copyright.