Inspiration/Musings · Posts associated with groups

mimicry in the biological world or how good artists copy, great artists steal!

April ‘Talk back’ Topic:

How do you view the topic of “copying”?

This is a heavy topic for many artists, designers, crafters, makers, etc. People want to view themselves as original individuals only to step outside and find everyone wearing the same boots and scarf! I want to share some of my views as a teacher, an artist, as well as a ‘maker’ of (what I consider) crafty objects.

Recently I’ve been reading several books all on the topic of ART.  The first book is E.H. Gombrich’s, ‘The Story of Art’ , now in its sixteenth edition! The next book I just finished reading and highly recommend is, ‘Art and Fear, Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking’ by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I mention these particular books because they both discuss the idea of, the history of, or the fear of being copied.

Throughout history artists have drawn from works that preceded their own, drew inspiration from other artists, or just plain took a work changed it/added to it/repackaged it and made something new. Without knowing what came before, how can one truly move ahead into new ground? However, is there new ground?

With all kinds of new technology allowing artists different ways to approach their work, personal computers have opened up entirely new worlds for everyone online. Anyone with a computer (or phone) and internet connection can view images of other people’s work more than ever before. That said, people are now discovering others that work from a similar place, share similar inspirations, work in similar if not the same mediums…
As a teacher I have noticed certain progressions with students new and working with metal. I’ve come upon two directions. The first starts with beading, making ethnic inspired pieces, slowly heading into working with metal formed cup shapes. Simple domes.
How many variations can you come up with? Drill the domes, insert wire, melt the end of wire into a ball… I’ve seen this done over and over and over again. I started this way. Then move into respoussé, hydraulic press, hollowforms, multiples. Later you might add resin or enamel to the cup/dome.
This is hardly new and definitely not reinventing the wheel! Sometimes aspiring metal artists get it together to have a different take on the ‘dome’ or ‘cup’. Usually however this is not the case and somebody feels they’ve been copied.
The other view I’ve encountered is the person who draws inspiration from biology, such as myself. 🙂 Well gee, while biology is a large subject many ‘artists’ are (naturally) drawn to leaves, trees, nuts, animals and every decade certain items on that list become trendy and everyone is making them in one medium or another. My mother use to collect anything Owl related in the 70’s, Owls seem to be back in a big way. Take the squirrel, elk, antlers, birds, acorn for example (even the mustache and cupcake!).

It use to be the seemingly quirky artists chose to interpret; cell life, internal organs, marine biology, etc. This past decade I have seen this ‘quirky’ list grow exceptionally trendy. Or, does this trendiness come from our new found ability to surf the internet and find like minded people? Sell in hot online storefronts? Such as….drum roll… Etsy.

Etsy has enabled many people old and new to art, craft and design to broadcast their works, and visions globally. I first heard about Etsy in 2006, signed up and opened up shop. Now in 2010 there are thousands upon thousands of Etsy Sellers. Perhaps due in part to Etsy’s popularity as a place to make money (and some people truly make decent cash flow happen) some Sellers have taken note of what seems to sell well and fast and have started to make (mimic) these items, or similar items and put them up in their shops for sale. Obviously this has created a lot of tension, anger, frustration, and coarse language. 😉 People accusing one another of plagiarism, and copy right infringement.
As an artist, I was once accused of copying (plagiarizing) someone’s work. They later claimed I was keeping ‘their’ concepts alive. It was all a bunch of nonsense, as I never copied them. What I attempted to ‘copy’ was the Human heart. I had already done this with ceramic, paint, sterling silver (many times and I might add when they were still learning to walk!), but had yet to do so using glass. When I did this person said I was copying, them. On the contrary, I was copying the Human heart!
No one person on this planet can claim copyright, or ownership to anything biologically based (well, maybe Gunther Von Hagen, or copyrighting DNA are the exception).
Since glass dates back some 30,000 years I’m fairly certain there really isn’t a shape, or dot in bead form that hasn’t happened at some point in time.
Then, some view imitation as the highest form of flattery.

That said, there are those who literally attempt to make exact duplicates of other peoples work. When continuing on this course of action I view it as obviously highly incorrect! If the imitation(s) are being made as a form of learning a technique, and will eventually grow into new work then I see nothing wrong with this form of imitation or mimicry.

The current issue of Glass Quarterly has an excellent article by William Warmus where he mentions a copyright case he was involved in. Mr Warmus is an art critic, and scuba diver. He mentions how, as he began to dive more frequently spending more time under water with experts in fish behaviour he started to notice certain mannerisms (in fish) that he felt might enable us to see art and art making in a new light. The form of mimicry was his first clue. While involved in a copyright case as an expert witness his research taught him that artists appear to copy one another to varying degrees all the time, and while diving he learned that fish do this, too. An example used, “nontoxic fish mimic toxic species to gain protection from predators” such as some species of tilefish.

“Is it not also natural that weaker artists might mimic stronger ones in order to survive in the marketplace?” -William Warmus

What he finds appealing about this line of reasoning is that it is an approach that takes the behaviour out of the legal realm and sees it as natural. The famed Italian glass maestro Lino Tagliapietra, for example has engendered a legion of mimics, as has the glass artist William Morris. Unfortunately concerning mimicry he ends there and moves on to reticulate evolution, and aesthetics.

Being heavily inspired by the sea, marine life forms (radiolarian, jellyfish), biology, and life in general I want to agree with Mr Warmus’ view on mimicry in the art world as simply natural. I will even venture to say mimicry is a natural part of life in the art world and a natural progression towards developing your own voice.

“Every artist is a cannibal – every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.” -U2

“Every Artist Is a Cannibal Every Poet Is a Thief. Steal a little and they call you a thief; Steal a lot and they call you King!” -Bob Dylan

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”-Albert Einstein

”You learn how to make your work by making your work … art you care about — and lots of it!” Art and Fear, page 6.

Cameron Moll wrote an interesting article on the topic of copying from a web design view, “Designers copy, great designers steal”
Steve Jobs, mentions one of Picasso’s famous quotes as he readily admits to Apple’s copying/stealing from others., “Good artists copy, great artists steal!” here.

Make sure to read the other views on copying circulating through the Snow Leopard Network:
Andes Cruz –
Jewelry by Natsuko –
Susan Moloney –
Beth Cyr –
Tamra Gentry –
ArtJewel designs-
alisa miller –
Mary Spencer-
Thomasin Durgin –

5 thoughts on “mimicry in the biological world or how good artists copy, great artists steal!

  1. This is a great post, I couldn’t agree more. I love the ideas about mimicry being natural for us, that’s a new point of view for me that makes sense. I have Art and Fear, good book.

  2. absolutely fantastic post tosca. so many good points,m and you do have a unique viewpoint, being mutimedia, as well as student/artist/teacher. I do agree that we mimic to learn, and *grow*. … hopefully we all move past it to find our voice and shine in our own uniqueness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.