Recently a Facebook acquaintance who will remain anonymous was accused and publicly attacked for artistic plagiarism. For the sake of discussion let's refer to her as Mary.
Mary is a painter working with acrylic media. This is a new journey for her as it was a little less than a year ago that she picked up a paintbrush for the first time and just last month she quit her job to follow this new found passion. In all appearances she seemed very sincere and very passionate about her work, passionate enough to have sought out a well-known artist and convince him to be her mentor.
I've been following her work on Facebook and over time there has been a marked improvement but in all honesty her style doesn't connect with me on an emotional or cerebral level, nonetheless I do appreciate her skill and enjoy watching her grow as an artist.
Unbeknownst to most of her Facebook fans Mary appeared to have been using pre-existing works as a basis for her paintings. Several local artists had begun noticing this and confronted her. They claim she just ignored them so an epic Facebook battle began.
This group of artists went to the extreme of setting up an anti-Mary Facebook page. So I began following the parallel threads on Mary's and the anti-Mary page with interest. Some of the artists had posted comparison pictures of Marys' work right next to other artists' work and some of the resemblances were striking. Some more so than others and that led me to ask when is plagiarism truly plagiarism? To be honest I don't believe that I will know the right answer for myself until long after I'm done writing this piece.
Mary defended herself by stating that she's a beginner and that she is learning to paint, that she uses other people's examples and tries to copy those examples in order to learn certain techniques. As a photographer I can certainly understand and appreciate the desire to learn by emulating works of those photographers we admire.
On the anti-Mary thread two salient arguments made, one for and one against copying others' works. The point against its fairly easy to comprehend. In defense of copying, one artist uploaded an example of her work which was based upon a famous classical painting. This artist had purposely altered that painting however the base image still recognizable and was no question at all that it was a copy, she intently leveraged the previously existing artwork as it contributed directly to the artists' statement. In other words substituting some other artwork would have failed to provoke same reactions so in such it legitimized its use at least in my mind.
Tangential to this is I believe we've all experienced creating an image only to discover that some other artists to create something very similar. Does this detract or minimize the work that we had created? I would propose that the answer is no as long as all the conditions that make art have been met. Only the artist can truly understand whether those conditions were met with honesty and intent. The viewer can only guess and hence this is where frustration is born.