“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
by Freewee Ling.
I’ve had a number of reasons lately to consider the question of originality in art. One of my favorite metaphors is the idea of watching Rembrandt painting a portrait. He hands me the brush and says, “See what it does?” As though the brilliance of the work is due to the tool rather than the artist. And yet, what would he do without brushes? Perhaps use his fingers or a stick or some other medium, but that would result in a very different kind of work. The medium may or may not be the message, but it’s hard to send a message without a medium. So clearly the tools we use can have a profound influence the work we create. But we seldom credit the toolmaker. And this is appropriate, since it’s the vision of the artist that causes her to select a tool and to use it in some original way. While the making of a paintbrush or a computer graphics program are arguably artistic pursuits in themselves, their raison d’etre is to provide tools for the artist to render a creative vision.
But what about incorporating the actual work of another in your art? This, too, has a proud tradition. Art begets art. Inspiration begets inspiration. I have stated that much of my own work is clearly derivative. I can often point to the exact piece or artist that inspired me to explore a particular idea. I don’t often sell my work or exhibit it or write about it in any depth, so there is no context for explaining these origins and relationships, and I neither hide nor apologize for it.
One of my pet peeves, however, is photographic art using architectural subjects. There is a famous spiral staircase in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, not far from where I live, that is a favorite subject for photographers. One in particular (who did not take the picture above) has made a fair living off photographing that staircase and other details of the place and selling books, prints and calendars. He’s a fine photographer and not many could get such beautiful and evocative images. But what about the architect who designed the staircase? Is he not an unnamed collaborator in the photographer’s art? It’s easy to take beautiful photos of beautiful subjects. It’s not so easy to create a beautiful subject.
In US copyright law, at least in theory, a copy of a work of art cannot be copyrighted if its intent is to be a true and faithful copy of the original. A photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not copyrightable because there is no new art. A photo of the Louvre gallery with the Mona Lisa in its frame surrounded by visitors is copyrightable because it’s a unique view. So in theory (and museums and other owners of original art would like to disagree), the use of any faithful photo reproduction of a 2-dimensional art work otherwise in the public domain is not subject to copyright by the photographer or by the institution or person that owns the piece. However, a detail photo of a 2-dimensional work may be copyrighted because it is intended to show something other than a faithful reproduction of the whole. The photographer is saying “look at this,”and that makes it original art. Similarly, photographs of 3-dimensional work is copyrightable simply because a choice is made as to the angle of view, lighting, etc. It’s a question of originality and uniqueness.
What has the artist brought to the work that is new? I see a lot of art in SL and elsewhere that uses components that are not original by the artist. Most commonly it’s just a matter of using textures created by someone else. Depending on how they are used, this could be a trivial or a significant question. If I paste a picture of the Mona Lisa on a prim, is it my art? It could be argued that no one has ever done that before (unlikely), but the question is where something new and original happens.
It’s not always easy to know how much of a piece is created out of nothing but imagination . I’ve seen a single unaltered plywood prim presented as art in a sort of homage to Warhol, Magritte, Duchamp, Man Ray, etc. How a piece is presented is certainly relevant. If you find a wad of chewing gum on the street and scrape it up and plaster it on a gallery wall with a frame around it and a title card, it becomes something more than a wad of gum. It’s a medium and a statement. Someone has made a series of original creative decisions that has taken it out of context in order to present it as a thing to be considered. So what about the gum chewer or the gum manufacturer? They have no standing as unwitting collaborators?
It’s a silly example, of course, but the lines are not often so clear. We don’t credit the tool makers in most art (though it can be quite relevant in some digital work to describe the process by which it is made, which often includes software and hardware configurations, and even modifying an existing model). Certainly Duchamp did not credit the bicycle wheel maker or the urinal manufacturer. (As a curious aside, Duchamp’s original ready-made “Fountain” for the exhibition in 1917 was lost. But it had such a reputation that Duchamp had reproductions made (based largely on a Steiglitz photo of the original) in the 1950s, which are now in important collections around the world. Thus the unoriginal “original” object becomes an original work that is a copy of the original unoriginal piece. N’est pas? I want my Dada. )
In SL, there are a thousands of ready made objects and scripts and textures that are commonly used in art. One of the more common I’ve seen lately are mannequin figures. (I find this ironic that we use analogs to our digital bodies, which are analogs of our atomic bodies.) I used many of these figures myself in my Angry Gods installation, and the astounding Cherry Manga and others have used them in really imaginative ways. They are nicely made and provide a useful shortcut to having to create a sculpted body from scratch. They can be dramatically altered in size and texture, so the final result is as much or more the artist’s work as that of the mannequin sculptor.
Understand, that when I refer to a mannequin, it is usually not used as a mere hanger for clothing. It is often used to represent a human figure in a context in which the body is critical to the meaning of the piece. Historically, artists have used live models from which to construct their images in true-to-life poses. (Even Rodin’s contorted figures were based on possible, if uncomfortable, poses.) It is certainly a convenience to have ready-made mannequins that can be so easily modified.
Whether an artist uses a stone, a piece of wood, or a prim, it’s what she does with it that makes art. So taking ready made objects in original art is not, per se, a problem. The issue I have with it is the assumption by the public that an artwork on display is entirely the work of the credited artist. While there is seldom intention to deceive, the perception is that the artist has skills that she may or may not actually have.
In judging and discussing work for awards at UWA, I examine the pieces pretty closely. One thing I look for is originality in all its components. The use of ready-made parts and textures by no means disqualifies a piece in my mind. But that knowledge does influence how I think about it because it speaks to the artist’s approach to the work. E.g, the artist has chosen to place a ready-made mannequin here because it humanizes the message of the piece, which is more important or expeditious to her than creating a figure from scratch. As a viewer and judge, I decide whether that placement is effective and engaging, aside from the technical skills of the mannequin’s maker, and I will examine the technical skills of the artist in decorating and placing the mannequin within the context of the piece.
While the gestalt of a piece usually overrides the technical details, part of my mission is to educate the judging panels about these issues and to try and make sure they are not considering factors that are not the actual work of the artist. I don’t want to see awards given because a judge thought the artist made such a fine mannequin or whatever pre-fab object may have been included.
Republished from Freewee’s Labratory (July 11, 2011)