10 November 2009


This thing about Witi Ihimaera ripping people off is pretty funny. Apparently, he took some things other people had done, tweaked them a little, and placed them, unattributed, in his own work.

In art, we do this all the time.* It's called appropriation. Some people think it's a postmodernist thing, but it's not. It has a long and illustrious history. I reckon the cave painters busily ripped each other off. However, the examples I'm going to use are a bit more recent than that – from the fifteenth century.

In fifteenth century Italy, it was not uncommon (to say the least) for different painters to paint the same subject. Nor was it uncommon for a painter to take some figures or a compositional device another painter had used when treating the same subject, tweak it, and use it in their own work.

Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci were contemporaries. They trained in the same bottega under Verocchio. They knew each other's work well. In 1475, Botticelli painted this version of the Adoration of the Magi:

Note the pyramidal composition of the figures, the row of receding ruins in the top left, and the standing figure in the bottom right (a self-portrait). Compare it with Leonardo's version from 1480:

The standing figure at the bottom right is also a self-portrait. Now, Leonardo's got pretty fancy with the figures, using a half circle as well as a pyramid for a much more integrated composition. And ruins in the background were pretty standard in Adorations, to signify the old pagan order of things that was swept away by the coming of Christianity.

However, I don't think I'm stretching a long bow to say that Leonardo's painting is a direct response to Botticelli's. They were pretty competitive. Leonardo is saying, 'I see what you've done, and I've done it better.'

In about 1500, Botticelli painted this version:

Note the figure kneeling in front of the virgin and child. Mentally reverse it, then compare it with the figure kneeling in front of the virgin and child in Leonardo's painting. (Click on the pic to make it bigger if necessary.) They are the same. Note as well the figure in red with a black hat that looks a lot like Leonardo (though it is also a general type). The stupid amount of figures could also be part of it: 'Outdo this!'

So I reckon Witi should tell those po-faced motherfuckers to fuck themselves. Take a leaf out of Hone Harawira's book!

*An interesting and revealing case is Picabia. When he does it with his paintings, the art historians call him a proto-postmodernist. When he does it in his writings, he gets called a plagiarist.

I should also point out that I only rip off the dead. They're my proper contemporaries anyway.


stephen said...

But, um.. the long and illustrious tradition of appropriation is in image making (and, to a lesser extent, music composition), and not -- as far as I know -- fiction writing.

Or am I missing something?

David Cauchi said...

Nope, that's exactly my point, hence the note about Picabia. Frightful double standard. And why a manifestly inferior art form should take on such airs is beyond me.

That said, I do recall something about Elizabethan playwrights freely stealing plots from each other. That hack Shakespeare I seem to remember.

stephen said...

And why a manifestly inferior art form should take on such airs is beyond me.

I love you David. You just made me snort out loud, laughing.

Frightful double standard.

I haven't read the Listener piece, just extended commentary about the issue from Jolisa Gracewood, but I'm going to put my neck out and say that I think that in THIS circumstance, historical novel or not, what Ihimaera did was so clumsy that it's just plain crappy and not okay.

David Cauchi said...

William Burroughs has something to say on this subject:

'Writers work with words and voices just as painters work with colours; and where do these words and voices come from? Many sources: conversations heard and overheard, movies and radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, yes, and other writers; a phrase comes to mind from an old western story in a pulp magazine read years ago, can't remember where or when: "He looked at her, trying to read her mind – but her eyes were old, unbluffed, unreadable." There's one I lifted.'

See here for more. I remembered him saying something in this passage about how, if you want some historical background for your historical novel, you should simply take it from an eyewitness historical source, but I can't find it now.

There's also this:

'Out of the closet and into the museums, libraries, architectural monuments, concert halls, bookstores, recording studios and film studios of the world. Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief. All the artists of history, from cave painters to Picasso, all the poets and writers, the musicians and architects, offer their wares, importuning him like street vendors. They supplicate him from the bored minds of school children, from the prisons of uncritical veneration, from dead museums and dusty archives. Sculptors stretch forth their limestone arms to receive the life-giving transfusion of flesh as their severed limbs are grafted onto Mister America. Mais le voleur n'est pas presse' – the thief is in no hurry. He must assure himself of the quality of the merchandise and its suitability for his purpose before he conveys the supreme honor and benediction of his theft.

'Words, colors, light, sounds, stone, wood, bronze belong to the living artist. They belong to anyone who can use them. Loot the Louvre! A bas l'originalite', the sterile and assertive ego that imprisons as it creates. Vive le vol – pure, shameless, total. We are not responsible. Steal anything in sight.'

Of course, notwithstanding all of this, when I exhibited a drawing of an upside down New Zealand as New Dadaland, and then not long after saw someone else include an upside down New Zealand in one of his drawings, I was pretty annoyed.

stephen said...

You're right, of course. Old Bill is too. I think my main gripe was that this was seemingly done so clumsily, with such lack of skill. Oh wait.. so essentially Ihimaera is a bad writer. Quelle surprise.

I was pretty annoyed

Hah! yes I can relate to this oh too well.

Heidi Brickell said...

I completely agree with you, it think it's wonderful to take other people's work and use it regardless of who wrote it... it's turns promotes a sort of folksong mentality, which is a very ancient form of passing on knowledge, and runs sort of counter to western logocentrism. Not to promote the Bible, but that's a good example of this in a text that has become popular in the West.. the four Gospels well one or two of them, are blatant collages of the others. on a scientific note... people are even nothing more than collages of their ancestors... it's cool to reference things that have been before, and the author of them will inevitably die, and in this way it's like their creativity is extended beyond their physical capability.. a sort of blood line. Perhaps I am speaking too poetically in the context of a critical discussion. But i appreciated that somebody said something to undermine the outrage about that.

David Cauchi said...

Cheers Heidi, I like what you say about people being collages of their ancestors. I'd go further and say people are collages of themselves.

Because there is no singular self, just warring factions.

And then there's how identity is constructed.

Heidi Brickell said...

haha yes. I have to put in though that i've come to accept that logocentrism and caricature have their place. obviously or we wouldn't be talking. good blog.

Some Arsehole said...

Fuck, I totally forgot to mention here that I had linked to your post :))

David Cauchi said...

Ha ha ha!

And look what mire you've dragged me into! Arsehole!

David Cauchi said...

I should've taken my own advice and told the po-faced motherfuckers to fuck off.

stephen said...

If you've got the stomach for it, I would love you to continue. The possibility of changing the mind of just ONE reader there about the farce that is this high-minded idea of "plagiarism" in writing would be very sweet.

You're quite right to insist that somebody "show their working" i.e. elaborate arguments. I'm gaging for something to sink my teeth into!

stephen said...

Also gagging for a spell-checker!

David Cauchi said...

No-one's going to change their mind. It's like arguing politics.

People rush to defend their entrenched positions, the lines don't move more than a few metres for years on end, and the no-man's land in the middle gets reduced to a muddy, churned up wasteland where nothing can grow.

Martin said...

I disagree. That "churned up wasteland where nothing can grow" is the best place for something new to grow, as long as it ignores the posturings of the entrenched.
The best place to start is by refusing to listen to those who demand that you take sides in a fight that you don't wish to take part in. Then create what you want, not what they want.
Took me many years to see this (did I say years? I meant decades).

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