It does not happen all the time but it should not happen at all. It is despicable. It is called plagiarism and should be considered a prisonable offence.
I know that almost everything that we can imagine has been done before in one way or another and that it is very difficult to do something completely new but I am not referring to that. Nor am I referring to the remakes, or interpretations with other mediums, or techniques of iconic artworks, which homages to talent, and a channel of inspiration for some artists who acknowledge the debt, somehow. Neither I am referring to the logical and healthy influence between peers working at the same studio or sharing the same experiences – as the masters did – no, that is “peccata minuta”.
I am referring to the worst form of plagiarism that sometimes occurs out of competitions to be part of an exhibition or open calls for artistic ideas. The “iter criminis” flows as easily as this: First, you, innocent hopeful victim send your design, your artwork or your proposal for a contest or an open call which demands a particular idea or type of work. The reasons to do so are multiple; some do it for the prize money they desperately need; others are looking for publicity, promotion or future commissions to kick-start their careers; for leisure, for ego, but I am sure everybody puts their heart into it. Whatever the reasons, participants deserve, at the least, professional respect. Second, you might receive a formal laconic statement saying either that unfortunately your proposal was not selected or that the contest was dropped because, according to the jury, no entrant reached the desired quality. With this excuse they don´t spend any money on prizes and they dishearten artists at the same time. Cool. Sometimes they will wish you success in your career and not invite you to the private or public view of the winners. Cruel.
We could dismiss this as the way natural selection works in the art world, or to accept this is just life was not for the cat that, out of serendipity, one day, shortly after, you discover that your rejected and disregarded work, that was supposed to be confidential, has been plagiarized and camouflaged and used for commercial purposes. You recognize it as a mother would recognize her child and alike in the Bible’s story of “The Judgment of Solomon” you discover yourself proud of the recognition that lies underneath the criminal action rather than furious for the appropriation of your ideas without receiving so much as a pat on the back. It is always the Shakespearian dilemma “to be – even plagiarized – or not to be”. But this should never be.
The professional protection and confidence expected of these highly organized, and sometimes renown, private or public calls, is broken, and an orphan feeling of injustice emerges, forcing the artist into surrender. It should never happen, but to denounce these practices legally is brutal, evidentially difficult to prove, long, and most of the time not worth the effort – and they know it. So most artists are silent, as many are who have been abused. Nevertheless, from time to time, some bold chosen few hit the nail in the head. A contemporary art icon or two admit to the plagiarism that places their talent in serious doubt, and renews the controversy of the complex plagiarism debate. To mention some recent ones, the sentence of Jeff Koons for the work “Naked” and the suspicion on Damien Hirst and his diamond skulls. And you cannot entrust the law to establish what is right and what is criminal taking into consideration the particular facts of each case because they are not art experts.
It is imperative to organize a symposium to establish the thin red line between inspiration and plagiarism and to outline the structure for an international, regularly updated ruling on this important question.
In passing I need to mention nepotism, cronyism, of all colors in commissioning public art.
I would like this article to be a warning to all. Come to your own conclusions. Take your own precautions. Having faith is not always enough.
Susana Gómez Laín, Madrid
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 p 31