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?

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