“Artistic Styles:  Is this Artwork ‘Inspired by’ or ‘Stolen by?’  You be the Judge” by Debra Hand

There’s a heated debate about the visual artist, Deborah Roberts, and her artwork.  The discussion concerns whether or not her style of “Collage” painting has been stolen or appropriated by the art director and designer, Peter S. Pak, in his opening sequence of “The Godfather of Harlem.”  See the image below and tell us what you think. In your opinion, is it okay for the work of one artist to be inspired to this extent by the work of another? If not, where do you think this artist crossed the line between ‘inspired by’ and ‘stolen by?’  In my opinion, the answer is not as neat and simple as it might first appear, at least, not in this case. But, aside from that, I think this debate points to a much larger question, and that question is this: How much do artist rightfully own of their creations? 

Peter Pak (@peterp4k) • Instagram photos and videos

There’s an old saying that “all great artists steal.”  And while this is certainly NOT true, it is ABSOLUTELY true that all artists are eventually influenced by the works of other artists.  The fact is: creativity inspires creativity. This is how humans went from cave drawings to Michelangelo. But, even Michelangelo was influenced by other artists who had also focused on painting and sculpting the human figure long before Michelangelo’s day.  In fact, he was not even the first artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. According to the Vatican, the ceiling had been painted with blue skies and stars by another artist well before him. Still, this doesn’t undermine the fact that Michelangelo brought something new and different to the game.  And that’s the point I think is worth exploring here because there’s a significant difference between a true original thinker who elevates their chosen genre, and a copycat who lays in wait for others to innovate in order to ride their coat-tails into success. As such, I believe this is a topic well-worth discussion by artists, collectors, curators, and others who truly want to honor and advance creative thinking.    

“Where an artist has produced no ideas, I would argue that they have also produced “no art.”

Artists have been thinking and creating for thousands of years…millions and millions of them, by the way… so there are no new concepts about civilization under the sun.  Despite the fact that technologies evolve, humans remain human. Therefore, the ingredients needed for artists to create something entirely new and different must be extracted from elements such as stylistic approach, material and medium choice, personal perspective, treatment of subject-matter, deviation from artistic traditions, etc.  It is with these elements that true creative thinkers must somehow manage to concoct their own signature styles and vocabularies. In doing so, however, artists are still building upon what came before them, in some way, even when it’s their goal to reject all tradition. In fact, “rejecting tradition” is literally an old, traditional genre of art.  Marcel Duchamp claimed to be rejecting tradition. But, not really. His art “the ready-mades” as he called them, were already designed by someone else and existed as products before Duchamp exhibited them as art. He created nothing new (as art) with which to reject any other form (of art) that came before him. Instead, he only managed to place the most traditional object of the day (a toilet) in an untraditional context (an art exhibition).  Partly an act of frustration with the bourgeois who controlled the art world where he was often rejected, and partly a challenge to an organized society of artists which claimed they would accept into their exhibit, the work of any artist who paid the fee. It is within this context that Duchamp entered his infamous fixture into the show. By doing so, however, Duchamp didn’t succeed in upending the boundaries of artistic creativity so much as he succeeded at moving the commercial boundaries of what could be “sold as art.”  He merely scooted his fixture out of the category of “bathroom appliance” and into the pristine province of the elite art world of his day. Granted, this was quite a feat to pull off, but it was not Duchamp who pulled it off, Instead, it was the collectors who eventually bought into the game, as well as the marketers who invented a narrative for his fixture and eventually made the category stick.  

Pablo Picasso also set out to reject tradition.  His work was influenced by sculptures he encountered at an Ethnographic museum in Paris; sculptures which had been stolen from Africa during European colonization.  However, while many of these masks and artifacts appeared to be artworks, they were actually tools used in African culture to perform the everyday rituals of life: planting, worshipping, communing, rights-of-passage, etc.  However, unlike Duchamp, Picasso didn’t just take these objects, unchanged, and enter them into exhibits as his own creations. Instead, Picasso used African Art as a source reference for other creations, and he then used his new style of creating to challenge creative traditions.  So there is a big difference between these two artists. Duchamp out-and-out took the designs of others and used them for his own gain, but Picasso, admittedly inspired by African art, for the most part only referenced it to evolve his artistic style of Cubism; a style which also contained many of his own original ideas, along with the influences of such artists as Matisse and Braque.  Again, it all comes down to this question: how much can one artist be inspired by the designs of another before they move out of the territory of “inspired by” and into the land of “stolen by?” There is a line between the two, and the more unique an artist can make their work, the farther apart they set themselves from eclipsing the styles and ideas of other artists hovering around this line of demarcation.  But, what happens when an artist chooses a medium to work in that is in and of itself a copy of the stylistic approach of someone who came before them?  Obviously it will be that much harder for such an artist to develop their own distinctive style in the genre.    For example, oil paint is a medium, not a style. Any artist working with oil paint is free to bring their own style to the medium.  If artist-A decides to use the medium of oil paint and then also uses short, thin brushstrokes to quickly paint their impressions of places, or objects… their work will fall into a style called “Impressionism.”  If artist-A further decides to paint faint scenes of water lilies, they will undoubtedly see similarities between their own work and that of every other artist that was influenced by Monet. In this case, neither the medium, the style, nor the subject-matter were uniquely created by artist-A, so the artist would be hard pressed to make a case against a copycat doing similar work.  But, unlike using the medium of oil to paint with, Collage is both a medium and a style of creating, all at once.  

Collage Art, for the most part, involves creating artwork from preexisting images or photographs that are cut up and then reassembled into new images or environments.  The Cubist style is a form of collage. The style has been long used in Black art and was widely popularized in Black culture by artists such as Romare Bearden. There is an inherent look and style that comes from cutting out the facial features from photographs of different people, and then recombining those features to create new faces.  Artists working in this style and medium have to be exceptionally creative in order to set their work apart in significant ways from every other collage artist using this method. And again, the greatest potential for artists to find unique signatures in this medium, lies in how they choose to approach the style and subject-matter, along with the perspective they can bring to the work.  Looking at the work of Deborah Roberts and her approach to the Collage medium, as well as the subject-matter, I certainly find her work to be striking and unique. And she definitely offers a persuasive narrative with which to engage the viewer. But, the question inevitably being raised by the aforementioned debate is: how much of this medium and style — in combination with her approach to subject matter — did she originate?  And… has a sufficient amount of what she originated been used or appropriated by Peter S. Pak to an extent that amounts to theft?    

I have great sympathy for any artist whose ideas are stolen.  Art is hard work! For those who are willing to do the work, their creations come from so deep within that it is literally part of them.  Truly great artist are willing to undergo the agony of mastery. They press forward despite the challenges, in order to extract art from the gold mines of stuff that exists within them; the stuff that has stratified like layers of rock lain down by life, time, experiences, and relationships.  The visual stuff of life gets all mixed in their too; random visual stuff… the turn of a dancer’s foot; the first stare of new love; heart-wrenching footage of injustice on the news…it all gets churned in and eventually influences the art that comes out. But, since artists are also fed by other creative people, these external influences get sprinkled into the stew as well.  Now, if life was fair, the artistic process would be more like a potluck meal where every creative person has to bring a creation to the feast in order to earn a spot in the buffet line. And a person who never brings a pot to add to the meal would not be allowed to just keep showing up with their ladle ready to enjoy the hard work of others who have endured endless years of trial and experimentation to find their voices.        

Some artists devote themselves like Tibetan Monks to finding ways to make their work unique.   They obsessively pick, dig and tunnel through the layers of stuff that make-up their realities.  Day in/day out, they conceptualize and explore. Meanwhile, the rent and utilities are due. The car note is due.  More materials are needed, framers and exhibit fees must be paid. Still they stay on the grind, despite the chaos.  So, imagine if it were you and finally, through determination and hard work, you figure out a special way to translate the subject-matter of life into art.  And just when the work begins to take off, another artist (who made none of these sacrifices) swoops in to take all of your creative ideas for their own gain and recognition.  How would this make you feel? How about if that artist gave you a big hug and told the world that they were inspired and influenced by your work? Would it be okay then?     

Some say “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” but like most sayings, that’s only true for very specific situations.  A boy who tries to imitate the walk of the father he looks up to…that’s a form of flattery. Someone practicing hard with the hopes of growing up to achieve the heights of their sports hero, that’s a form of flattery.  But an artist waiting for other artists to make every required sacrifice to bring new creative visions into the world so they can copy them for their own financial gain, this is not flattery. This is theft personified.    

Creative ideas are invisible and they live solely inside of artists until the artists can figure out how to manifest them into physical form.  If artist-A figures out a new and novel approach to making art, and then artist-B sees that style and proceeds to replicate that exact idea, in my opinion, artist-B has stolen from artist-A, not once, but twice.  Artist-B has stolen both the invisible seed of the idea, plus all the time and labor involved in figuring out how to make that idea a physical painting. “Art making,” as a category of “human doings” is all about the physical embodiment and expression of the invisible ideas occurring inside the artist’s head.  So, where an artist has produced no ideas, I would argue that they have also produced “no art.” And it is beyond unjust that one artist, having created nothing but a copy, would sign their name to someone else’s ideas as if they were the true originator. But, is this the case here?    

To answer, I also have to take into account the fact that artists not only legitimately influence each other’s work, but many even explore the same subject-matter using the same medium.  So it is reasonable to expect that the works of some artists will stylistically resemble that of other’s. This is what produces art movements. But, even when artists devote themselves to exploring the same mediums in the exact same styles, they still have to do the hard work it takes to set their talents apart.  This is especially true for collage artists because the medium of Collage is literally a style of art that is derived from artists using the designs, photographs, images, and magazine clippings of other artists as their source material.  

As for Deborah Roberts, I personally feel that she has greatly succeeded in setting herself apart as a distinct and exciting creative voice in Collage expression.  My question to you is — when considering her artistic style, medium, and subject-matter, altogether, how much of her style do you feel is self-invented and should belong solely to her as intellectual property?   

If she is being stolen from, she has every right to be incensed and to confront the injustice.  But, if she has only inspired Peter S. Pak in the same way that perhaps she has been inspired by other artists such as Romare Bearden before her, then it is unfair to him to be publicly accused of stealing her ideas?  When first comparing the pictures of their artwork, an opinion on the matter might seem clear-cut. But as I looked into the background story, there is more to consider. It seems that Peter S. Pak didn’t just wake up one day and decide to begin this particular style of Collage, but rather, he was hired to create imagery for the opening of “The Godfather of Harlem,” a movie depicting an era when the collage paintings of the legendary Romare Bearden, would have been at the epicenter of Black Culture in Harlem.  Looking at the opening sequence created by Peter S. Pak, where the artwork in question appears, and looking at it from a cinematic standpoint where the opening sequence of a movie must speedily and engagingly communicate a sense of time, place, and culture in order to hook the audience – the collage style of Romare Bearden is actually a fantastic choice for the style of the opening visuals; especially given the rap song that accompanies the images. The opening promises the excitement of a riveting story set in the real-life world of the movie’s protagonist.  But does Peter S. Pak go too far? It seems he also wanted to push the visuals into a more modernized version being used by some artists now, and in doing so he has landed squarely on the same style as that used by Deborah Roberts…although he does not necessarily use the same subject-matter that Deborah Roberts is known for. And while he openly acknowledges the influence on his work by both Romare Bearden and Deborah Roberts, the question is, did Peter S. Pak cross that line? I think in order to answer the question fairly you have to answer the larger question: How much of an artist’s work truly belongs to them?  And to answer this question, I think you need only to subtract the influence of Bearden from the styles of both Roberts and Pak, and then see what remains on the table. Whatever is left after doing so, is what each of them has brought to the feast from their own individual creativity, provided that they have had no other influences. Please share your thoughts with us in the comments’ section below, as well as share this article.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar by Debra Hand

Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.

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