Is This Your Work?


              Is your art totally your own creation?

            Usually this question would be asked whenever someone copies another painting too closely, especially if doing so without acknowledging the artist who is the source of the inspiration. But the question can also arise in other contexts.  

            For example, in painting a still life, if I should paint a view of a room, and the part of the room showing was dominated by a painting done by someone else, would I be copying if I duplicated it? My guess is that this depends upon the size of the painting within the painting. Many artists – great and not as great – have included a painting within a painting. It could be a reproduction of their own work hung in their own studio; it could be the work of a friend of the artist that they have bought or borrowed and placed in their own studio; it could be the work of any artist if the painter goes to someone else’s house to paint a still life. But these paintings within a painting are typically quite small. Usually, the strokes just give the impression of the original work, even if quite recognizable. The painting within a painting concept is usually treated with appreciation and sometimes receives a humorous reaction. In short, the concept of a painting within a painting works. On the other hand, if the painting being copied took up half your canvas, people wouldn’t consider it an original work. The painter would just be copying the other artist’s painting.

            Some artists also wrestle with the question of when it is okay to paint from a photograph taken by someone else. Some artists go so far as to never use another person’s photograph, and only paint from photos that they themselves have taken. Some think it is okay if only a small portion of the other photographer’s photograph is used. Other artists think it is fair game to paint an entire scene from a photo taken by another photographer. The reasoning for an artist using the photographic work of someone else, and still being original, is that a painting and a photograph are entirely two different art objects. Almost any rendering of the photograph would be an interpretation and not a copy. Yet another line of reasoning that using another’s photograph is okay is to approve of it as long as the artist is merely “inspired” by that work rather than seeking an exact duplication. After all, there are countless variations of how recognizable the original photo might be.

            Some painters are “purists” and do not like to use photographs at all – even though they themselves are the photographers. They do not believe a two-dimensional source is real enough. Instead, these painters make sure that the entire piece of art is of their direct creation. They may arrange the still life, or go outside and paint a landscape in plein air, or pull images or abstractions out of their head. They will not even “copy” themselves!

            Let us say that you are an artist who chooses to paint still life from objects you arrange. Yes, even then, the artist may be in danger of copying. Can you say that this is totally your work? This gets really picky, but which objects of your painting inspiration are fair game? Let’s imagine that you choose to use a sculpture as your center of attention in your painting, but the sculpture is the work of a great sculptor with a well-known style. Your painting renders an image of the sculptor’s creation squarely in the center of your canvas. In such a case, is this your art, or is it the art of the sculptor who originally made the form you copy? What about other objects about your house? What about artistically rendered pots, or furniture or rugs or tapestries? Matisse, Picasso and other masters, for example, became huge fans of African masks. The makers of most of these masks were never known outside their communities, and may have been part of a collective community effort. Or the artist making the mask may have been known in some time and place, but now his or her name is lost to history. When these masks – like many other art forms introduced to European artists from around the world – became known to European artists, the European artists were fascinated. The masks, and urns, and harem chairs and Moroccan tapestries, started showing up in their paintings. The painters received much acclaim for their “originality.” But who was the originator - the mask maker, the tapestry designer or weaver, or the person who designed and produced an intricate Turkish tile? Why is the person heralded for this beautiful work the one who reproduces these creations in paint?

            Then, finally, there is the issue of “cultural appropriation.”  Is this your work, or the work of a people to whom you do not belong? Is each artist confined to his or her background, or can the artist venture out to experiment with new styles to which they become exposed? For example, I once spent hours in a museum fascinated by my first close encounter with Aboriginal art. How different the form was to me. How exciting! What a unique interpretation! The uniqueness of the style was shared by “Aboriginals” in the Australian continent, and many different Aboriginal artists created unique pieces that were recognizable as a style of a continent of people. While these artists are working in this general and recognizable community style, the products of their artistic ability evidence an endless variety and the specific style of most of these artists is their own. The art is both the product of community work while at the same time being each a unique original work. Today this art form remains a practice and is available for sale, produced by many exciting, contemporary Aboriginal artists. But is it okay for non-Aboriginal artists to use the style?

            Am I – a person who has never even been to Australia – free to experiment with an Aboriginal style? I have tried this quite a few times. In my defense, if I need one, I tried to give my “Aboriginal”paintings a look that could not be confused with any I had seen. One way I did this was by “fusion” with a “Western” style. One of mine, for example, was called “Aboriginal Meets Pop.” It had the marks of the aboriginal style, mainly dots forming patterns throughout the piece, but the background was in intense colors, like fuschia, that would not be confused with a typical Aboriginal style.

            I hope my experimentation with the Aboriginal style is culturally acceptable. However, I cannot help but dwell on whether my work is sufficiently original whenever I use part of another person’s photograph, paint an inside-the-picture painting done by another artist, paint a ceramic or sculpture or other piece of art by someone else within my painting, or borrow the style of other cultures.  What do you think? Whose art is this? Is this your work?