By Alexandra Herrmann
There is no lack of influence in the art world. Artists have been influenced by the work of their predecessors and contemporaries for centuries; as well as by certain themes, subject matter, and styles that reemerge with the flow of trends. Although these trends and similarities in the art world are inevitable, great artists know how to take inspiration from their influencers and create work that’s truly unique. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “There is much difference between imitating a man and counterfeiting him.”
We have all heard the saying that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but where is the line drawn between imitating and counterfeiting in the art world? The answer is simply originality. While an artist can have technical skills and an aesthetic presence, if their work lacks creativity or originality, then it also lacks artistic merit. An artist should be able to break down their influences, discern what inspires them, and allow that inspiration to evolve into its own creation. Consider the belief that, “good artists copy while great artists steal.” If an artist is able to take an influence and make it completely theirs, in other words “steal” from it, then they can be respected as a notable artist in the art world. While influence and imitation can be evident, so should the artist’s originality.
What is Originality?
Originality does not dictate that a concept has to be completely unique. In fact, this may be near impossible because nothing is created without prior influence. For example, think about style; Just because an artist decides to sling paint, does not mean that they are necessarily copying or honoring Pollock. While Pollock may have influenced an artist, how that artist decides to apply that inspiration to their work can greatly affect their final creatio
Influence can also come in the form of subject matter, where certain themes are commonly observed in the art world. For example, an artist is not counterfeiting or paying homage to Michelangelo by creating a Pieta because the influence of the subject comes from Christianity, not Michelangelo. Artists are able to have common subjects in their work while allowing their personal style and design to create artworks that are original. However, if an artist were to completelycopy another artist’s work then that would be a counterfeit.
So why do individuals create counterfeits of another artist’s work? The reasons vary, among them: the artist’s influence, financial success, aesthetics, or a myriad of other motivations. Art forgeries have always been present in the art world, with the intent to “rip off” or plagiarize the original artist. Forgeries have turned up in museums and have been sold on the art market, passing off as the original work.
While forged works are not respected, the same is not necessarily true for works that are paying homage to an artist or their work. Paying homage indicates that the intent is not to “rip off,” but to honor. Artists who pay homage to another’s work will still show evidence of their own originality; think Manet’s Olympia to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. While the imagery or style may be the same, works of homage are often able to be discerned as an individual unique artwork, and can convey different meaning than that of the work it pays homage to.
Homage Outside of the Art World
Artistic counterfeits and works of Homage are not limited to the fine arts but are also found in pop culture. Famous art can be recreated in media such as in television shows, magazine photographs, and music videos. While this artistic appropriation can connect to the audience, it is ultimately a borrowed concept if it is not presented in an original fashion. Lady Marguerite Blessington believed “Borrowed thoughts, like borrowed money, only show the poverty of the borrower.” This is where, once again, originality is a vital part of the creative process in order to gain artistic merit. If the concept is simply borrowed, it cannot be considered the art of the borrower.
In addition to pop culture, the modern age has made art increasingly available to the public. The promotion of art on the internet, Instagram accounts, and the ability to look up just about anything makes it very easy for artists to discover and draw inspiration from others. While artists have an endless source of inspiration, there is also an endless source to borrow from. When artistic concepts are so easily borrowed, it can be a challenge for artists to maintain a sense of individuality in the art world. Simply put, for an artist to be respected, they must have originality in any form of art they create. An artist should not borrow if they cannot make it their own.
Influence, homage, and originality are important factors to keep in mind when you are both viewing and collecting artwork. As a collector or patron of the arts, you must understand the artist, what inspires them, and how they are respected in the artistic community to ensure that you are looking at a truly creative and original piece of art. New works of art will always be influenced by existing artworks, the singularity lies in how the artist chooses to use that inspiration in creating a true original. Support the artist that creates something new, admonish the artist that forges for profit.