Case Study: Influence vs. Plagiarism in the Creative Arts

One of the primary roles of good art is to push culture to move forward into new, previously unexplored territory.   The purpose of the “avant-garde” is to lead via innovative expression of truly creative thought.  Accordingly, it can be argued that the most legitimate way to properly judge the relevance of artists is not by the commercial value of their work but rather by the influence they have on their peers and followers in the creative fields.  When the market system works properly, monetary value of artworks follows this flow of influence, not the other way around.

With the benefit of hindsight, we clearly perceive the marks great artists’ efforts imprint on society and their directional impact on the flow of culture.  Beethoven, Lennon and Cobain are proper examples of great leaders in music whose leadership and influence can be compared with Kubrick, Spielberg, and Tarantino in film and Manet, Duchamps, and Warhol in visual art.  Damien Hirst, on the other hand, who showed so much promise in earlier stages of his career, has recently offered a mega-series of inane spot paintings that may achieve spectacular hammer prices but, because they will leave no durable effect on the psyche of important artists to come, these works will be forgotten except in footnotes of art historical discussions about early 21st century art market fluctuations and excess.  These ridiculous works are the visual equivalent of Britney Spears’ discography; well-known Pop constructions that reach a mass audience but offer nothing of value nor interest for future generations to emulate.  His recent still-life paintings, largely ridiculed by the critical art world, continue this declining trajectory into gross commercial soup.  (Oops, he did it again.)

So, greatness is best revealed over time through clarity of influence.  What, then, is the difference between influence and plagiarism in the creative arts?  When an artist borrows and makes clear reference to earlier work, how are we to judge this as a good or bad thing?

The rise of sampling in popular music during the late 20th century was not only deemed acceptable but in some cases it helped further cement the reputations of the musicians that created the original content in the first place, particularly when the sampled creators were properly acknowledged in liner notes and publishing records.  Staying on the theme of popular music, this issue is more complex when we look at early Rock and Roll from Britain and America; only decades after their rise to critical acclaim was it made clear that bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin had based so much of their early work on American blues musicians’ accomplishments in the early 20th century.  In the long run, the early injustices created were corrected and those bluesmen gained a decent share of the acclaim.  At least with these 1960s and 1970s Rock bands, musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page were open about their influences; culture at large simply ignored these types of attribution discussions in their frenzy to consume the reinterpreted music.

Unfortunately, influence is frequently revealed in a more complicated manner; when clear attribution is missing from obviously derivative creative expression, charges of plagiarism can be fairly leveled.  When artistic innovation is repurposed/refabricated for purely commercial interests, the knives start to fly.

A stunning example recently bubbled up in the advertising world when Sapporo, the Japanese brewery, launched its recent “Legendary Biru” television advertising campaign in 2010.  Though gorgeous and highly creative in its own right, this video spot is undeniably derivative of an earlier work by Toronto/Berlin/Los Angeles-based film and video artist, Marco Brambilla.  A quick viewing of his incredibly imaginative and electrifying short film “Civilization” (2009) followed by the Sapporo advertisement raises legitimate questions of creative theft.  Was the brilliantly radical “rising” camera movement through time and space envisioned and innovated by Brambilla stolen outright by Crush, the Toronto-based advertising agency responsible for the beer commercial?  Has the aesthetic achievement of the artist been unfairly co-opted by the commercial interests of the advertising firm?  These questions are made more complex by the fact that the same team of visual effects wizards at Crush that produced the ad also helped Brambilla develop his art video (which has been installed in the elevator at the Standard Hotel in New York City since July 2009, a full year before the release of the Sapporo commercial).  Is this a situation where influence is having its intended effect (namely, avant-garde thought filtering into culture) or is this a simple case of an artist having his revolutionary and unique vision ripped off by the very people that helped him realize it?

Essay by Randy Gladman for The Ministry of Artistic Affairs, June 2, 2012.

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