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What’s wrong and what’s right in terms of originality and art is a matter of serious debate…Which is worse, theft or ignorance?

“We’re surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them,” Jonathan Lethem wrote in a Harper’s essay last year called “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” an essay comprising sentences lifted from other places. In one of the few sentences in that essay that wasn’t sourced, Lethem proclaimed: “Art is sourced.”

The point is that there is no such thing as a “clean” piece of writing or art. An artist’s only imperative is to be informed about what came before, Lethem argued, in order to steal better. Outright, daylight theft is best, Fredericksen [director of Western Bridge, an art space] agreed recently. Accidental copying…is worst, precisely because it is so uncanny, Fredericksen said: “It’s a doppelgänger. That’s a classic horror story.”

Except what constitutes a copy? Is there a difference in art akin to the DNA difference between a fraternal and an identical twin? What about mere siblings? If artists acknowledge influences more overtly rather than less, does it protect them? Cases of artworks looking intentionally similar through acknowledged influence or overt appropriation are obvious and well documented, but cases of artworks looking accidentally similar are not all that uncommon, either—and present more complicated problems.

Jen Graves
The Stranger