Saturday, 1 May 2010

This guy's ripping me off

Stephen Willats thought that 
Art & Language were ripping him off 

Art & Language thought that 
Joseph Kosuth was ripping them off
Joseth Kosuth thought that 
Lawrence Weiner was ripping him off 

on a recent trip to London 
Lawrence Weiner saw a show by Stephen Willats 

he said 
fuck me this guy's ripping me off
“Circle”, owada (Martin Creed)

Untitled, contact print, 1985

I spend much of my teaching life giving ideas away to students. I try to keep these ideas as rudimentary as possible because I believe it's important for students to generate their own more sophisticated solutions - after all, it's usually they who initiated the ideas in the first place. Sometimes we just need a gentle nudge to help us along our way and to allow us to discover a new perspective upon our work - so a suggestion, no matter how vague or clumsy (and mine are often both), is often helpful to clarify our direction.

This process of sharing ideas, and most especially the possession of them, is fraught with difficulty, especially for artists who work in close proximity. House-styles emerge because artists influence and inspire one another. Movements arise for the same reason, but perhaps contain a wider variety of approaches and fewer tendencies to mimic visual appearances to the detriment of content. For this reason, house-styles are viewed with suspicion whereas movements (isms) are viewed as progressive. But how can a movement really evolve without a certain beginning in a house-style? If artists are so anxious not to mimic one another how can they develop a shared vision without creating possessiveness, bitterness and suspicion?

Some years ago a student once said to me “I don’t mind people ripping me off Jim – I’ve got loads of ideas.” Of course, for some of us the process of developing ideas is a much more involved process, so to the extent that we’ve invested research, struggle and emotion in our work it can be frustrating to see other people taking what appears to be easy advantage of our hard-won effort.

Untitled, C-type print, 1986

When I was a student the artist and visiting lecturer Mari Mahr praised me on the images I was making using a Diana camera, but I was put off continuing with them because another more senior student was using the Diana too (and to me he was doing a much better job). During a later visit she asked me why I’d stopped using the Diana Camera. I said “Because so and so uses a Diana camera too” to which she replied – “That’s easy – all you have to do is make more images than him”. I did, and we soon found our own individual ways to be distinctive.

Untitled, C-type print, 1986

There's a related, but perhaps more troubling situation, where, like Capt Scott, you toil towards something only to find that it's already been discovered. The feeling of disappointment in such situations is directly proportional to the investment made. At least when you rip someone off you’re under no illusions that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants – or perhaps more accurately - on the shoulders of someone else’s giant. But ultimately the reward that comes as a result of genuine effort is yours alone, in so far as you understand how you got there and next time you'll be all the better prepared for the difficult but potentially highly rewarding journey.

Cedalion standing on the shoulders of Orion from Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicolas Poussin, 1658


M-J Archibald said...

I think this is an important point Jim, but for me it's the other side of the coin - I don't seem to have a plethora of ideas so I'm afraid that I'll be the one being seen to rip others off!

Also, common sense tells me that even if it's 'been done before', if I try it, I might find my own way of doing something, or I'll learn about how it was done, or other ideas will flow once I start, but sometimes just knowing it's been done stops me from even trying! (Whether it will be because someone will think I'm just copying or because I won't be able to do it so well.)

I think there's also something in there about not wanting to talk about ideas in case they sound silly, corny, passe or 'typically art student'!!

Will try to get it out my system before I get to 2nd year!

Thanks for this post.


J. Hamlyn said...

Hi M-J,

Thanks for your response. Your remark: "just knowing it's been done stops me from even trying!" made me realise that I'd missed an important point which I've now added to the end of my post - ie: sometimes you forge ahead and succeed only to find that you've covered well trodden ground anyway. Yup, it can be really demoralising sometimes but also elating (as I'm sure you know) and it's this that keeps us going.



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