Wednesday, November 11, 2009

DAMage Report - When Art Imitates Art

The 1963 painting by Alma Thomas (to the right) is remarkably similar to a 1953 piece by Matisse (below it) and is causing an uproar of controversy on the topic of art and plagiarism. The painting was originally among the works selected by the Obamas to hang in the White House, but was returned - either due to the controversy or because it really didn't match the sofa. The reasons really are inconsequential. What is of interest are the heated debates over the differences between tribute art and outright theft of concept and/or visuals.

It is true that art imitates life. It is also true that in one way, shape, or form, art also imitates art. It can't be helped. Artists ARE influenced in their ideas and their forms of expression.

Picasso said "the bad artists imitate, the great artists steal."
In other words, to steal an idea you have to own it and make it your own.
To imitate, you merely need to copy it and put nothing of yourself into it.

On one hand, Alma's "Watusi" is an almost exact replica of Matisse's "L'escargot" with palette changed and shapes rearranged. On the other hand, it is well documented that Alma created the painting as a tribute, using it as a study of Matisse's techniques. She never hid the fact that it was directly influenced. Furthermore, her study of this particular work was apparently a turning point in her art. Everything that followed reflected the impact of Matisse on her paintings/concepts/approach. As Tilly Greene remarked yesterday, it would have been MORE interesting to see Alma take the influence to another level, rather than just remake Matisse's composition. But it should be duly noted that Alma probably had no idea that her painting would one day hang in the Hirshhorn Museum and be considered one of the great works of American art.

I've often wondered if Picasso and Matisse would roll over in their graves knowing that their napkin drawings are considered fine works of art. Nawwww - Picasso would love it, the arrogant old bastard!

The major difference between plagiarism and tribute seems to be credit given where credit is due. Trying to pass off copies of someone else's original concepts and work as your own is plagiarism, pure and simple. Utilizing the ideas and visuals of a "master" artist to create something new, or to study technique is tribute. All art is an imitation in one form or another, whether it is an imitation of something seen or an expression of an idea born within the mind of the artist. It is the process of communicating the ideas, the visions, the exploration that creates the art in whatever genre the artist chooses to express themselves in.

Does Watusi deserve to be considered a great work of art, given that it is a tribute piece? It depends on who you talk to. Personally I think it is confusing and blurs the already subjective lines of what constitutes "masterful" art - art that rates hanging in the top museums of the world. Does Alma Thomas deserve the scathing disregard for her work that is currently being bandied about? Absolutely not. However, on the bright side - more people now know her name and have looked at her paintings. Bad P.R. is better than no P.R. type thing.

Art is once again the heated topic of discussion - replacing whatever was on television last night as the topic of choice.
Well, for some people anyway.

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