“Borrowing” in Art
Watercolorist Laurin McCracken has become widely known for painting in the Flemish style. His work is exhilarating, but uniquely his own.

We learn by mimicking. Our first words are mimicking the sounds we hear our parents saying and then we place meaning to those words. We absorb knowledge and using the intellect and imagination we are given, we make it our own. In many art schools painters are taught to copy others, before they are unleashed to create their own style and vision. But sometimes the evolution of creativity is interrupted, perhaps it is a defect of character, a lack of confidence or even a skill unaccompanied by imagination to fulfill it that causes some to “borrow,” “copy,” or “plagiarize” another’s work. This is frowned upon for good reason because it is theft plain and simple.

I once had some photographs stolen that were in a traveling exhibit. My photography teacher spun the disappointment I felt to explain I might consider the act flattery instead an act of violation, that someone had noticed my work, and admired it so much they felt compelled to have it. It sounded nice at the time, and I let the matter go in my mind.

With the instantaneous world of the internet and a new generation coming along that is not privy to the decorum of generations past, plagiarism is becoming rampant. As the author of a children’s history book, I struggled with this issue almost daily for four years. I believe historians, in their effort not to alter history or “rewrite” it; have one of the most challenging jobs when it comes to plagiarism. Several of our most high-profile historians have been confronted with plagiarism in recent years. And God bless them, I think plagiarism is discovered mostly by the plagiarism police. Those people out there who don’t read for learning, but so that they can catch others in making mistakes. They are the people who will call you up to tell you that you misspelled a word. They are watching every comma to make sure it is in place, which it is hard to do considering the style books have many differing opinions on how this works.

In the visual arts, borrowing is more accepted as a learning tool, but not to be profited from. I have in my closet two wonderful images my daughter painted in school. They are black and white paintings of famous paintings she was instructed to copy for a learning experience. I have been carefully instructed of this fact and am not to tell anyone otherwise. I’m planning to frame them soon, but then there is that nagging thought that the “plagiarism police” might find me and scold me.

Copying the Old Masters for profit is a huge business that plagues the art community even today. For those of us with limited budgets, we’re buying art because we like something, not because it might or might not become valuable in decades to come. That way we get full value for our art, we can admire it, study it, and learn from it daily without wondering if we have made a wise decision or not. Its intrinsic value is all we ask of it.--Ruth Mitchell

(c) 2006 - Ruth Mitchell - all rights reserved