It's not plagiarism. It's called "teaching".

Tesia Blackburn
Acrylic on Paper
Recently I stumbled across a blog post by a printmaker who was pretty angry about one of her students working in a similar fashion to the way she worked.  She refers to students making copies of "her" work using the techniques she uses. Now mind you, this is after she taught them to do it. The students paid her for her expertise and she agreed to teach them how to make prints, in the same way she makes prints.  This is printmaking, not painting. In printmaking the processes go back hundreds, if not thousands of years.   Granted, you can use fancy materials or innovative cutting techniques. Maybe even come up with a cool new way to etch without using toxic chemicals (see Keith Howard's innovative techniques for non-toxic etching).  But the bottom line is, you are working on some sort of "plate" (whether you are cutting it, etching it, painting it) and transferring the image to some sort of surface like paper, cloth, aluminum, plastic and so on.

Pretty basic concept, right?  Why is this printmaker going on about being "plagiarized"?  Is it because the students used the same color of ink? Maybe the images are similar? I'm not sure I entirely understand the problem.

Medieval Guilds
Students emulating their masters is a long and honored tradition. In the Middle Ages, students or apprentices, would work in a guild under the knowledgable eye of the master, gaining skill and experience with their craft. It took many years to become a master and not until the apprentice could recreate the master's work perfectly, would they be allowed to move into that honored role.  So we now have works "from the school of..." in museums. Remember in the Middle Ages, artisans were mostly anonymous. There were no big artist egos...yet.

Fast forward to the Renaissance and the Artist with a capital "A" is born. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio - we refer to them with one name - like rock stars. And indeed, they were the rock stars of their time.  Stories even refer to Leonardo wearing purple tights. Sounds like Mick Jagger to me.

At any rate, I'm still wondering why the above-mentioned printmaker was so upset.  As a teacher for many, many years I've seen lots of students copy my work. Some of them have even become fairly successful at selling work that resembles mine from a particular period in my career.    I can pick up just about any big glossy art magazine, turn to a given page on a "famous" artist, and find a painting that resembles something one of my students had done. In fact, I recently gave a "blind test" to my advanced painting students. I put two paintings side by side and asked which one was the million dollar painting and which was the one selling online for four hundred bucks.  About half of the class got it wrong.  They simply couldn't tell the difference between an art superstar and a regular working artist.

I love teaching. I love interacting with the students and watching them grow. I love how it impacts my own work - keeps me on my toes technically. I love it when my students are successful and have shows and send me flowers to thank me for helping them. It brings tears to my eyes when I see the light go on for a new student. That a ha! moment when they really get it.

So what's the moral of this story? I'm not sure. But maybe, just maybe, if you are a teacher and you don't want people to copy your work then perhaps you shouldn't teach them how to do it.

By the way, that image up there? That's one of my paintings. Why don't you make a copy of it?

Don't teach people to do what you do if you don't want them to do it. 


Gayle said...

Excellent blog Tesia and thank you for addressing this issue. I read online something similar to what you described (perhaps it was the from the same complainant) and it did trouble me. You so eloquently put in words the feelings I had. A few years ago I watched the documentary "Everything is a Remix"; it was quite an eye opener. Here's the link, in case you haven't seen it: I'm sure you are familiar with Austin Kleon's wonderful book: "Steal Like An Artist". Every artist needs to read it! There's a great quote by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." We are all part of a continuum of "remix", not just intellectually, but it's the very essence of our genetic make-up. The total monopolizing of ideas will eventually impede the flow of creativity from nourishing future generations. You are a wonderful and generous teacher. Thank you!

Tesia Blackburn said...

Thank you Gayle! This topic has bothered me for some time. And I'm so glad there are other like minded souls out there. I believe the printmaker who had issues is in the minority. At least I hope so! I have read Austin Kelon's book, in fact I met him at a book signing. It's a very good book and you are right, every artist should read it. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

Marian Phillips said...

Yeah. First of all, that teacher needs to quit using the word "plagiarism" so loosely. "To make a print in the style of" doesn't even come close to meeting the standard for plagiarism, which anyway is a predominantly literary crime. (In fact, I'm not sure what the equivalent of plagiarism would even be in the visual arts.) It's also a serious ethical and legal accusation, and I hope word gets around that this is how this artist feels about her students, because she shouldn't be teaching.

Tesia Blackburn said...

Thank you Marian! Well put. My thoughts exactly.

Gordo said...

I've got a friend who began selling his work in galleries. His teacher was livid, because in her words, "he hadn't paid his dues." I think she's off her meds. I'm only happy for whatever success my students are able to attain.

Tesia Blackburn said...

Thanks Gordo! Yeah, I do believe the teachers "with heart and soul" are in the majority. At least I hope so! Great comment!


So TRUE !!

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