This Year (Thus Far) in Art Plagiarism

The past few months have been chock-full of accusations. Is copying on the rise, or are we just becoming more aware of what we've already seen?

by Andrew Nunes
07 September 2015, 12:10pm

Richard Prince’s New Portrait exhibition at Gagosian. Photo credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

With artists accusing other artists, companies, and even entire cities of plagiarising their works, accusations of artistic plagiarism have felt like they were at an all-time high in 2015. Plagiarism has always been an issue in art production, and the line between it and appropriation has always been a blurred one. But the question remains: has plagiarism become more of an issue today than in the past, and if so, what are some of the tactics artists can use to fight it?

One of the higher profile cases in the past year involved Richard Prince’s exhibition at Gagosian, New Portraits. Prince, one of the most well-known and controversial artists to ever employ appropriation in his practice, was hounded for his exhibition, consisting of large prints of images originating from the posts of different Instagram users. While some of the original users from whom the work was “appropriated” seemed to approve of the work and the exposure it gave them, others reacted slightly more negatively to the fact that their own posts were being sold for upwards of $100,000 at auction, without seeing any of that money themselves.

Screencaptures of The Fat Jew’s antics

While to many, it may seem a stretch to call him an artist, it's hard to deny that Josh Ostrovsky, more commonly known as The Fat Jew, has made employed similar artistic practices as Prince to become something of a social media scion. Recently, Ostrovsky has been under fire for the profitable career he's made out of reposting jokes and memes originating from other social media users, recreated without any attribution. That is, until after his stand off with the media—Ostrovsky now includes his sources but still seems relatively remorseless about his use. Other accounts with similar practices, including FuckJerry, have taken similar "we'll just go with it" positions.

Patrick Cariou’s Yes, Rasta vs Richard Prince’s Canal Zone

In some ways it seems like situations of these two Instagrammers—and that of Richard Prince—are similar; they make money off of other people’s "work," and the original creators never receive a part of the kickback. Instead, they often fuel the resulting outrage and denouncements of plagiarism. But Prince has been up to these antics for years; even winning a landmark case in 2009 that seemed to cement the legality of what he does. Why all the uproar now?

Maybe it has something to do with the informal information culture and implied ethics of reblogging and reposting, somewhat-developed over the past decade of the Internet. On platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, it’s generally frowned upon to repost someone else’s original content instead of reblogging or retweeting, which guarantees attribution and a direct link back to the content creator. People have been stealing the content of other users without attribution for decades, but generally the only reward for doing the dirty is attention. When money and literal fame (The Fat Jew had a deal in the workings with Comedy Central before the uproar) come in the mix, people begin to reevaluate their stances on plagiarism on the Internet, a medium that seems to inherently encourage this kind of behavior.

Jim Sanborn’s Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room (1993). Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo via Jim Sanborn

But the acts of Richard Prince and The Fat Jew are artist-on-artist, individual-on-individual, and are just a side of this coin in this year’s plagiarism accusations. Recently, there has also been a rise in artists accusing entire cities or countries of plagiarism in response to public art. Jim Sanborn, an American sculptor whose works are often enormous and use light as a central element, claimed that a new public artwork near Toronto is a blatant rip-off of a work he made in 1993, Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room.

PanAm Tribute Sculpture. Image by UrbanToronto flickr contributor Alisa Kutkin

The art in question is an installation at Centennial Park, made as a tribute to the Pan American Games held in Toronto earlier this year. The public sculpture and Sanborn’s 1993 work both possess a tall cylindrical center engraved with characters on all sides, from which a light source emanates, projecting the letters in a large 360-degree area around the sculpture. The only noticeable difference is in the content of the engraved and projected characters; Sanborn’s are cryptic and written in code while the public park’s is just a list of the sports held at the Pan American Games this year. While it’s not clear whether Sanborn is looking to take legal action, he has expressed his discontent stating that he would’ve charged $200,000 for such a piece. Even in the best case, however, he says he wouldn’t have done it for something as intellectually-unstimulating as a sporting event.

Public Sculpture in China’s Xinjiang Region. Photo: AP

On perhaps an even larger scale, famed British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor accused the entirety of China of plagiarism last month, following the unveiling of an installation almost identical to Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture, in a Chinese town called Karamay. China, a country known for their vastly different laws regarding intellectual property, will likely not suffer any repercussions for the mirror to Kapoor's "Bean," much to the British-Indian sculptor's dismay.

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. Photograph: Alamy

Viewing all these cases, one will notice that accusations of artistic plagiarism today are not solely connected to social media or the Internet. But perhaps because these tools allow for an easier access of information, it's easier for more artists to become aware of acts of theft against their works than they could have in the past. In a similar fashion, an artist who feels plagiarised can voice their opinion and have it spread with much more ease than ever, aiding the sentiment that plagiarism is more rampant than ever, when the actual climate may or may not be so. Regardless, it’s still problematic to steal someone’s idea and be the only one to profit from it—even if digital culture suggests it's fair game, we're going to need some ground rules first. 

Check out the links below for more art world stories:

We Talked to the Suicide Girls About Richard Prince's "Appropriation Art"

Anish Kapoor Starts 'Dirty Corner' Instagram (and It's Exactly What It Sounds Like)

New York City Takes Public Art to the Digital Realm