How to Steal like an Artist: Nothing is Original
The majority of us spend our days desperately imitating the lives of others. It seems surprising to admit this but within the society we live in, obsessed with power and position, it is believable that we wish to mimic those who flaunt success. Henry C. Lunn upholds that ‘to appear affluent in this world, rather than to be happy’ seems to be the desire of every individual.
This imitative behaviour comes naturally to us, as it has been hard wired within us since we were new born infants. Imitative behaviour is crucial to social cognition, it is how new born infants understand that adults are like ‘me’ and to empathize. How does this social development impact us in later life? This article argues how imitation has shaped social learning, developed our traditions, our culture and how ultimately because of this, Nothing is Original.
This year the work of Eduoard Manet (1832-1883) has been exhibited at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. His work epitomises a pivotal transition from the idealised beauty of the Renaissance period, to Impressionism. Yet this exhibition presents Manet in a different light from what we originally knew. That this is artist known to be so original and ground breaking, actually took from established artists and produced works of art with slight variations from the originals.
The most apparent example of this statement is Manet’s controversial painting Olympia (1867) which for the first time in history is displayed beside Titian’s flawless Venus of Urbino (1538). This historic pairing is what art critics have been raving about and from first- hand experience it can be understood why. It is an intense experience to be in the presence of these two influential artists. However what everyone’s attention is focused on when entering the room that possesses both these paintings is; Manet stole Titian’s authorship!
It is an unanticipated revelation that Manet who is viewed as the pinnacle of modernism, did not present the viewer with anything of originality. Yes, these two iconic ladies display very different intentions. Titian’s Venus softly melts onto the canvas with a glow of femininity whilst Manet’s harsh distorted female body violently confronts the viewer. Yet despite Manet’s slight dissimilarities and the paintings being centuries apart, Manet’s composition and concepts has tarnished Titian’s authorship.
Authorship is the source of origin of an idea. This argument is quite possibly providing proof that imitation does not reaffirm and strengthens authorship but dilutes it down. Whenever Titian’s Venus of Urbino is spoken about, so will be Manet’s Olympia and the paintings will continue to be paired together in art history.
However it would be wrong to accuse Manet of unforgivable theft, when many artists before and after him have proven that innovation in art is built upon stealing. T.S. Eliot, one of the most inspiring twentieth century’s poets, himself wrote that ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.’ Surprisingly Titian’s idea of his reclining nude was not an original itself but was an imitation of his predecessor Giorgione Barbarelli da Castelfranco who first introduced the sensuous female nude in his Sleeping Venus (1510). The only variation is that Titian introduced the reclining nude in a domestic environment instead of her original position in a rural environment. Titian’s imitative style of Giorgione has made attributing work to Giorgione a challenge, the painting Pastoral Concert, originally believed to be a Giorgione’s but not attributed to Titian. Although Picasso is celebrated for his individuality, he too appropriated other artists such as Paul Cezanne, Rembrandt and Diego Velazuez, so much so that Elizabeth Cowling dubbed him an ‘artist without style.’ Andy Warhol‘s art imitated advertisement images and celebrated the success of commercialism. It is in fact undeniable that, borrowing from the work of other artists has been a time honored practice that is still continued in this day and age.
In contemporary culture, imitation is paraded in all aspects of the arts, especially in the music industry where we’ve become accustomed to witnessing it directly. MIA’s memorable introduction to Paper planes (2007) is a replica of The Clash’s opening rift to Straight to hell (1982), although with very contrasting sounds. Ironically, The Clash themselves are guilty of imitating; the cover artwork for their album London Calling (1979) is an imitation/homage to the cover of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album, Elvis Presley (1956). The same scheme was used again in 1995 for the Big Audio Dynamite, a band fronted by former Clash member Mick Jones for the album F-Punk (1995). Another example of imitation in the music industry is song covers; artists that spring to mind are Michael Bubble and Robbie Williams who have both done versions of songs from The Rat Pack. What influenced these artists to do covers of someone else’s songs?
In their article Don’t Innovate, Imitate, Tim Deveney and Tom Stein believe that it is a lot easier to imitate a successful idea instead of coming up with your own. It is often a shorter and surer path to a first million. This is because as humans we find it hard to adapt to change and therefore find comfort in something we enjoy that is familiar. We are drawn to that lifestyle those particular artists exhibit, we wish to reminisce of a past life we can only imagine, that to us seems flawless and quintessential. With imitating a song from the past, we can enjoy its meaning but in our updated present culture.
Despite this chain of events and many others, musical artists and filmmakers have made it a well-known fact that the success of their work is directly linked to copyright protection. Authorised in 1787, the copyright clause made it possible to protect the interests of the creator and give them in authority to determine who may adapt their work to other forms. These rights given to protect artists from copy right, illustrates how imitation is not considered the sincerest form of flattery to these creative minds but a threat to originality; a necessity to their art form. Roland Barthes once said that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” To take freely from an artist’s work supports the idea that the original artist is dead or so it is thought.
The fashion industry on the other hand, avoids copyright restrictions, which is acknowledged in the New York Times article, Why imitation is the sincerest form of fashion (2010). The article argues that fashion designers have never asked for the approval of copyrights because ‘much growth and creativity in the industry depends on imitation’. Designers take ‘inspiration’ from other designers, but in the fashion world this has no impact on the success of their work. In fact, it gives their work credibility and success; this method of copying is what creates trends of the season. It is how fashion designers and people can keep up with the latest trend through imitation. Every item of clothing is a rework of something before, which is why fashion trends fade out and back in, over years.
Artists rely on tradition as guidance; they often repaint the works of others to explore the application of their own style to a similar composition. It is common for artist to study fine art and its history before making their own name for themselves. This tradition goes back to the Renaissance period where an artist would work under an artist and imitate their style to develop as an artist, regularly finishing off pieces of their master’s work.
However Lunn explains the damaging side effects of this, that the artist will imitate one who has already gained fame, instead of developing any talent he originally possesses. Therefore it can be agreed that to some extent that tradition restricts creativity and that after struggling to imitate others after a while Lunn comments how an author becomes a literary drudge.
As human beings it is in our nature to imitate actions of success as a survival instinct, therefore being doing so, we are undermining our own originality. Film directors would much rather rework a classic or imitate the story line of a popular book than create their own plot as David Bowie said, ‘the only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from’.
Yet my argument is that without any form of originality, our society could begin to bare similarities to settings within dystopian themed fictional pieces. Individuals will become dehumanized by imitation of one another; we may literally become walking drudges. As in the words of George Orwell, 1984;
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
What do you think? Leave a comment.