Artistic license and freedom allow creatives to reference sources, to produce art expressing original insight. How, then, do we respond to accusations of plagiarism in Art? Graeme Williams’ outrage about what he considers artistic appropriation by Hank Willis Thomas of his 1991 photograph of children and police officers in the Johannesburg, brings this question to light.
‘ARTISTS ARE FREE TO PRODUCE WORK INSPIRED BY PAST PIECES’
Artists are free to produce work inspired by past pieces, whereas plagiarism is stealing someone else’s original work and ideas. Thomas demonstrates a deviation from William’s original piece, and presented ideas through his manipulation of the photograph: The core of an art piece is the ideas that brought it into being; despite a similarity between these two particular pieces, the works are independent in aim and focus. In response to Thomas’ offer of temporarily gifting him the new piece, Williams stated he has ‘his own version of the photograph’. This disgruntled acknowledgement is key: Thomas’ work is a new version of a source. Thomas’ work doesn’t steal ideas, it is a transformation of a source to present his individual insight.
The most beautiful, emotionally eloquent art is that which touches an aspect of our society which stands like an open wound. Issues of race have always been contentious, but art has an ability to make statements about the abuse of rights with unique clarity. As someone with Afrikaans heritage, I found myself becoming uncharacteristically enraged when I read the Guardian article about the recent dispute between Graeme Williams and Hank Willis Thomas. This is especially true with photography, which captures a second of humanity from a perspective with far less judgement than any other art form. Thomas therefore, taking the photograph of South African Williams, and as a person of American nationality using it to express his own ideas about race, entirely misses the point.
‘”REWORKING” SURELY SHOULD RESPECT THE ORIGINAL ARTWORK FROM WHICH IT TAKES INSPIRATION’
His editing of the photo to add an entirely lightened portion is intended to provoke thought but instead presents Thomas unfavourably as naïve. He fails to respect the fact that the events of the move away from apartheid, and the release of Nelson Mandela, which this photograph is famous for representing, belong to South African people. His actions surrounding the photograph, selling it for twenty-five times the asking price, and claiming it belongs to those within the photograph, can only impact our appreciation of the artwork. “Reworking”, if it can exist without being plagiarism, surely should respect the original artwork from which it takes inspiration, not treat it as though it were a younger sibling to be patronised.
For more information on the scandal visit: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/sep/13/graeme-williams-hank-willis-thomas-photograph