Those who steal other artists’ ideas are not worthy of the badge ‘artist’ themselves, says Ian Moir.
Artist Lee Sendall suspects that film director Danny Boyle copied his original concept for the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony. Having read the various articles and compared Sendall's proposal for a public artwork to Boyle's model, I came to the conclusion that he has a good basis for his claims and I wish him luck pursuing them. I'm also a professional artist who suspects, but cannot prove, that visual concepts have been stolen from me for commercial purposes in the past, and I am concerned that Mr Sendall will fall foul of the press should he be unsuccessful in proving his case.
Anyone interested in contemporary art will have noticed that the British media do not seek out and celebrate the best, most visionary artists of our time, but instead favour those who are willing to shock our sense of taste, or pander, cloyingly and clumsily, to our sense of nostalgia. In turn, art colleges, museums, local government committees, critics, collectors, TV producers and, of course, the public all favour those who are already famous, already successful, without fully considering how all that wealth and celebrity came about: through a cynical, businesslike appreciation of the mainstream media and society's subsequent acquiescence to it.
These days the process of becoming a rich artist takes a special aptitude for PR which, unfortunately, seems to involve paring down the artwork to its most easily communicable state. It must be simple, lightweight and surprising like a firework – whizz, bang, pop! Any additional features will naturally slow it down, so it follows therefore that fine crafting and subtle meanings are the first to go in the creative process.
If you don't believe me, take a look at the UK's pre-eminent artists who are regularly reported upon. Their work is perfectly streamlined for passage through the channels of communication. I take notice of their work whenever I first hear about it but am often disappointed by its vacuousness and general disregard for draughtsmanship. It suits them to wear the badge that says 'artist', but in truth they are by instinct advertisers whose products are designed not for longevity or true self expression, but with the sole purpose of being talked about.
I first understood the relationship between contemporary art and marketing when I read that Damien Hirst had been accused of plagiarism on several occasions. This reminded me that my own work had likely been plagiarised shortly before I graduated from Glasgow School of Art. Although I studied 'Drawing and Painting', my tutors allowed me to screen short films at my final year degree show. These were largely surreal in nature and were conceived using techniques of the imagination – the ideas came from my head. Some time later I saw one of my concepts appear in a television commercial which was produced by an ad agency based in Edinburgh. The concept, timing and geography were way too coincidental for my liking. As an artist, I find it unthinkable that I would ever knowingly steal or copy another person's ideas – after all, what's the point of being an artist if not to be original? Thankfully I've never expected advertisers to maintain high ethical standards, so I forgave their cheekiness.
A few years later an artist friend told me that a very high profile artist had stolen two of his ideas directly from a show at Brick Lane in London in 2000. Assuming my friend is to be believed, there can be little doubt about the person's guilt since the two images are practically identical in style, content and concept. The painting in question became one of the offender's most renowned pieces, and the concept for the piece helped him to produce even more paintings (and therefore more money) along the same theme.
When I shared my story, my friend told me that advertisers are notorious for stealing ideas from artists, especially at college degree shows, where imaginations are unbridled. I had long suspected this to be the case, but at this point any of my remaining naivety about the abuse of intellectual property was dispelled forever. My friend, who is much older than me, gave me a 'welcome to hell, kid' kind of look.
The connection between contemporary art and advertising also now seemed clear: artists who are not burdened with a deep love of art will inevitably jump ship into an altogether murkier world where they find themselves doing what ad men often do. They dip their fingers into someone else's creative wellspring and pass it off as their own – whilst retaining their hallowed status as artists. Having financial backing seems to produce the right amount of hubris needed to steal directly from the poor: basic morality goes out the window, especially if you won't get caught.
Speculating for a moment about Danny Boyle, big money and the process of plagiarism, I concede he is not an ad man, nor is he a contemporary artist; he is a movie director. That is to say, he is one who develops and transmits other people's work to the screen. But now with Olympic funding, he is suspected of having done illegally what he normally does by profession – adapting someone else's idea for the big picture. This may have been a subliminal process. Perhaps he saw the idea then forgot it wasn't his? Perhaps someone else brought it to him and said he could use it? Either way, it will be for someone else to decide what actually happened – if Mr Sendall can afford to pursue his case.
Whatever the outcome, artists should take note: just because another artist made something without the expectation of being paid, doesn't mean that it is yours to take. You might not care about authorship in art, but your reputation may still take a mighty bashing after the public refuses to swallow a story about an amazing coincidence.
Ian Moir is a professional artist