Inspiration vs Plagiarism

If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” – Edward Hopper

Inspiration: noun  in· spi· ra· tion | \ˌin(t)-spə-ˈrā-shən – A divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation. (Merriam-Webster)

Plagiarism: noun pla· gia· rism | \ˈplā-jə-ˌri-zəm – The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. (Oxford Dictionary)

Since the dawn of humanity, art has been a mysterious phenomenon that clearly separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom as we know it, but what IS art exactly? Much like love, we all recognize it when we experience it. We feel it. We are in awe of great art, and we are disgusted by bad art, yet we still recognize it as bad “art.” We’ve been trying to define art for centuries, ultimately always relying on gut feeling in our judgment. While we often argue about which works of art are more pleasing to the senses than others, we tend to agree that art is a form of expression that comes from a place most mysterious and mostly undiscovered, a place beyond the physical world, a place within, what many refer to as the soul. We often describe an artistic ability as a “God-given gift,” a “talent” or “divine inspiration.” What is fascinating is that we are quite good at intuitively sensing artistic lies. You will hear people say “there’s no heart in this piece,” or worst yet “this isn’t even his original idea.” What elements of a given piece trigger these emotional responses in us? How can we even have an emotional response to some oil on canvas or musical notes arranged rhythmically? Is art so ancient that it is, in fact, a part of our limbic brain? And what do we as human beings define as true art born of inspiration, and what do we define as false art, copied from other people’s honest work? Finally, what actual definitions and laws have we put into effect to distinguish true art from false?

The mystery that envelopes the very concept of art can be traced to the birth of an idea. Where does it come from? What happens that moment when an artist sees a vision, drops everything, and rushes to her drawing board to begin sketching while it’s fresh in her mind? For centuries people believed, and many still do, that inspiration is a gift from some supernatural entity or deity. In fact, the word inspiration literally means divine influence. When someone tells us they were inspired to write a melody after a night of stargazing, we accept that explanation. Examining this string of events can prove quite curious though. Someone laid on their back for a few hours, their brain registered and interpreted the starlight hitting their retina, and then they were suddenly overcome with a need to recreate the melody that mysteriously appeared in their head. Feels like there is a step there that we are missing. What happens between the seeing of the stars and the acquisition of rhythmically arranged sounds? The question of the true origin of inspiration has not been answered yet. What we do know though is that it is unique to every individual.

Some will look at the night sky and be inspired to write music. Some, after the same stargazing experience, will be inspired to hug their dog. Why is one outcome considered to be a work of art, while the other is a mere act of amiability? I believe that art is a form of human communication, specifically evolved to communicate that which is beyond words.  The man who hugged his dog that night ended the thread of events with that hug. It was a sweet gesture, but no one was around to see it, sing about it, paint it, or otherwise immortalize it.

On the other hand, the man who wrote a song began a potentially endless conversation. When his song reaches other people, they will all have a response to it. It may be a positive or negative response. It may be confusion or it may be curiosity. Many who hear it will compare it with other music they know. Some will write their own tunes inspired by this one. Maybe, just maybe, someone will hear it and feel but a hint of what the author felt that night when he was touched by inspiration. Maybe THAT’s what art is – a way to document enlightened emotion in a way that can be read by other human beings.

Let’s go back to the man who hugged his dog. I suggested that his action was the end of the line in a communication thread because no one was around to witness it. Does that imply that art needs an audience to exist? Can art not exist in a vacuum? What if one paints the Mona Lisa and keeps her hidden away in a vault? Is she a work of art hidden in a vault, or is she just paint on canvas, to become a work of art only when she is seen by another human being for the first time, and only if she then evokes certain emotions in that individual? Which emotions and to what depths must a creation evoke to qualify as art? Can these criteria change over time?

An ant walking on the surface of the painting is not walking on the Mona Lisa. He is walking on a canvas coated in oil paint and resin. Only another human being can look at a painting and christen it art. In that sense, we create art in more ways than one. Artists create art as they put brushes to canvas, as their fingers prance on instrument keys, as their bodies twist and billow in a sensual dance. An achievement even greater than all these is that each and every observer makes these actions art. Without your intake, processing, and evaluation, none of these acts would be art. In truth, it is the observer who really “makes” art. The rest of us, the painters, the pianists, the dancers, we are just messengers. We try to deliver a sliver of emotion that cannot be expressed in words, but that can be read through the language of the soul.

We are complex beings, but there is still so much that we don’t know about our mechanism and function. We believe in logic, rational, and free will. We measure our decisions by their direct, observed, outcomes. We quantify our perceptions in registered emotional responses. Indeed, we have uncovered a great deal about how our mind works, but what about our soul? What about our intuition, instinct, or immediate limbic responses to things? Our limbic brain is what regulates our fight or flight reflex, it is what makes us jerk when we get too close to a flame. Can it also be responsible for our immediate acceptance or rejection of this mysterious concept of art? After all, no one can tell us what we do and do not like. Our feelings are our own. If art is in fact a language of the soul, used to communicate something that we cannot yet quantify or even define, then art creations cannot be appraised by standard systems that we have in place for other forms of communication. There is no grammar in art.

One can argue that every art style has its own guidelines and definitions, and that is a way to measure art. This is true. Classic portrait and full body depiction, for instance, requires a knowledge of human anatomy, respect of believable proportions, and consistency of the light source. However, it is not the math behind the art that makes it art. A photograph of a person is even more mathematically accurate than a painting. Yet, we do not think of our selfies as art, while paintings that may not be realistically proportionate or detailed clearly “speak” to us. We can assume then, that we all already speak this language of the soul, despite not understanding it. Does a songbird understand the reasons behind his every type of chirp and shriek? No, he just goes with it, and all other songbirds understand him. As humans, we are cursed with overanalyzing things. If we can’t grasp the exact way that something works, we often dismiss it. “Maybe we are just not evolved enough to understand it” is not an explanation that many are willing to even consider.

As in other forms of communication, in art, there is often misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and disagreement. What looks beautiful to me, may look grotesque to my neighbor. Our individual personalities play too great a role in our perception of the world. This is what makes communication interesting. In the realm of body language and verbal communication, there is one act that is considered by most unforgivable. The act of lying. Little children do not tolerate tricks and manipulations. Adults start wars over intrigue and betrayal. An aversion to deception is part of human nature. We forgive mistakes but never lies. We sense deception in the realm of art as well. Sometimes it is obvious, and we can judge an art piece as fake or without a soul immediately upon looking at it. At other times, a drawing or a painting may appeal to us, but upon discovering that it is not the artist’s original idea, we become furious.

Why is it so important to us that the work of art is original? Shouldn’t the final result, the presentation of the piece and it’s esthetic qualities be enough to please us? It all goes back to the idea of inspiration. When we discover that the presenter did not experience his own moment of inspiration, that he instead took someone else’s otherworldly experience and called it his own, we feel betrayed. We are being sold a lie. The emotions hidden in the painting in question are not the presenter’s emotions.  He is a faker. What he is selling us is not art, it’s just a pretty picture. Sensing that with our soul language skills we immediately distance ourselves from such a presenter. His works suddenly don’t look that appealing to us, and we find it difficult to trust in his creations in the future.

While we cannot measure the extent of beauty by any reliable scale, we did find a way to regulate and protect the originality of an artistic idea. The Copyright, or author’s right, is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. The copyright comes into being the minute that an art piece is created. It can be acknowledged by placing a circled “c” emblem somewhere on the work, but the visual symbol is not required. Think of the copyright as of a protective spell. It hovers around your creation in a soft blue protective glow the second you call it complete, granted that your work is truly your own. The copyright gives the creator all rights to his creation, including the right to profit from it. It also gives automatic and free legal protection. That means that if anyone bases their creations on your works of art, they are violating the copyright, and can, in fact, be sued.

What qualifies as work based on someone else’s creation, and how does it differ from work inspired by someone else’s style or theme? Once again, our gut feeling reveals a great deal. More often than not, when seeing two creations side by side, we can clearly judge if one is mimicking the other. Just like we can spot that really annoying copycat who keeps wearing all the same things that we do. Yet, we adore our little niece who tries to style her hair like ours.

Since opinions may vary and not all examples of plagiarism are clearcut, the copyright actually spells out how much of the idea needs to be borrowed to qualify as theft. Taking the composition precisely as it is and calling it your own is a copyright violation. Reusing other artists characters without a clear indication that it is a response, a parody, or a collaboration with the original artist, is also a violation of the copyright. According to Section 106, Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, codified in Title 17 of the U.S. Code, the copyright gives the artist, and the artist only, the right to make copies of their work, distribute those copies, perform or display the work publicly, or make works that derive from the original. No one else, unless they are hired by, collaborating with, or are legally representing the artist, has such rights to any given creation. An “artist” who scans google images looking for the prettiest photographs, traces them and calls that his original line art, carelessly slapping the copyright symbol on his pages, is breaking the law. It is as absurd as taking a published poem, rewriting it verbatim longhand, and proclaiming it your original work because it is written in pencil and not printed in ink.

I am the first to admit, however, that laws come and go, and our society may not have the copyright all figured out. It may be refined over the years. It may change altogether. People will always argue over the fine script and the thin lines. A greater law is being broken by the artist who steals compositions and calls his doodles original – the law of humanity. The law that governs our sense of honor. He triggers that spider sense that we get when we feel we are somehow being tricked. On the other end of the spectrum, art that is genuinely honest, born out of divine inspiration or just a brilliant mind, comforts people. It may present itself in any form, in any medium, in any style. It may not be anatomically accurate or even realistic. It may not be the best possible depiction of the subject, but it is honest. This honesty in art shines brighter than the perfection of line or color balance. It shines with the light that we all have inside of us. That’s what you see when you recognize real art. You recognize a part of yourself.