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Art is work, Milton Glaser

Influence, Imitation, and Plagiarism
Lecture to students at the School of Visual Arts, 1986

In April 1893 I prepared a talk to be delivered at the AGI Congress about certain pieces I had done based on Italian themes and influences. Colin Forbes thought that would be appropriate for a meeting held in Gargonza. As I put this show together it raised some questions in my mind about the issue of influences and originality.

What are the differences between influence, imitation and plagiarism? It's obvious that in a culture that celebrates and rewards individualism and uniqueness, designers, not to mention poets, painters and composers would be concerned about being accused of stealing ideas.

We recognize and celebrate influence, since human culture and even civilization itself depends on it. Beethoven stands on Mozart's shoulders. Influence makes progress and change possible. Influence is a well-regarded way of sharing and transmitting ideas--we might look on this activity as a form of gift-giving between groups or individuals.

We are somewhat less clear about the role of imitation, although other cultures that are perhaps less concerned about the role of the individual and more interested in their society as a whole, take a different view of imitation. As you may know, in Chinese art and artifacts, imitations (when well done) are considered to have the same value as the original. In most primitive cultures, the imitation of historical models for ritual purposes demands adherence to agreed upon forms, so that the magic will not be lost. In this case imitation is highly desirable.

Imitation serves another societal need--it establishes a context or set of values for the introduction of the new. If ideas were not imitated, they would have much more difficulty entering the culture. Van Dyke imitated his mentor Rubens, and as a result we understand and value Rubens more.

It is only relatively recently, with the concept of property value, that "originality" refers to something absolutely new, without precedent. Initially, the word "original" meant something that had existed from the beginning of time. This change occurred along with a change in the definition of art from something well-made to something new.

In an industrialized capitalistic society, the imitation of another's idea begins to raise questions of private property and financial rewards. It creates the condition where tiny bits of printed ephemera such as the red border on Time magazine or the twisted noodle under the word Coca-Cola become objects worth millions of dollars. This creates a condition where almost every major corporation employs hundreds of three hundred dollar an hour lawyers who do nothing except search relentlessly for possible trademark violations.

We seem to be clear on the value of influence, a bit ambivalent about imitation, but absolutely in agreement about plagiarism. We despise and condemn it as a form of theft. The exact boundaries between these three ideas--influence, imitation and plagiarism seem extremely difficult to fix. For people in the design and illustration business, the issue becomes very complex, since in addition to tring to create their own style, which has property value, they also have to speak the current vernacular language in order to be understood. It's a sort of mad juggling act with one eye on your contemporaries and the other on your navel. It is no wonder that many designers begin a new assignment by first riffling through last year's annual. Ultimately every practitioner develops some kind of dialectic between the side of his work that is personal and the side that is based on shared communal ideas.

Finally a few observations about the characteristics of imitation, influence, and plagiarism that may help define their differences. Imitation and influence generally acknowledge their sources, plagiarism conceals them. In both, the fact that the original idea is continued and celebrated, with or without significant modifications is a central issue. In plagiarism the intent is to cash in on the idea and use it for other reasons, usually self-aggrandizement or financial reward. The attempt to conceal sources produces work without the internal tension that original works possess. Since only surfaces are copied, plagiarized works are always characterized by a lack of energy. After acknowledging how difficult it is to clearly establish the boundaries between these ideas, a most amazing fact emerges--we all know it when we see it.

Publication information:
First published in the United States in 2000 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc. Lewis Hollow Road Woodstock, NY 12498 www.overlookpress.com

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