The Provenance of Ideas

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed that every article or book I read starts out with something like, “I’ve been drawing people with wings since I was two years old,” or “I’ve been collecting photographs of hands to use in my work since I was in kindergarten.” [Note: I made up these sentences. I did not take them from any actual articles written by any actual people.]

While I understand that people want to establish their long-standing interest in a particular idea or image, it’s become so pervasive that you pretty much skip the first couple of sentences of anything you read so you can get to the important part, going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know you didn’t copy the idea.”

In some cases, I imagine this is prompted by the fear of having someone else claim that their idea was stolen, as in, “I started using polka dots and cocker spaniels in my work first! I was using it WAY before she was! She stole my idea!”

Here’s the truth: except in the most flagrant cases, you cannot steal an idea. Ideas do not belong to anyone. US copyright law says so, and who are we to argue? Of course, if you have an idea for, say, an elaborate multi-media piece, a collage with the text of an original story incorporated into it and a companion DVD featuring your own choreography, and you tell all this to your business partner over a series of breakfast meetings, laying out your preliminary sketches and your signature dance steps, and then she fails to appear one morning and you never hear from her again until you see her on TV accepting an award for an installation that–whoa!–is made up entirely of the plans you shared with her, well. Then, perhaps, you might have a case. You might want to keep notes of those breakfast meetings. Maybe some video.

But if, instead, she just starts making paintings with polka dots and cocker spaniels? Sorry, but you’re not going to have a claim. If she uses one of your actual images, a painting or a photograph that belongs to you, sure–that’s a violation. But if she just uses the idea? Nope. She can go out and take photograph of cocker spaniels all day long. Polka dots belong to nobody.

Sometimes, I’m sure, the authors/artists just want not to be seen as jumping on the bandwagon. You know, you start seeing birds and nests everywhere, or photographs of women standing on chairs. And you smack your forehead and go, “I have a whole collection of photos of me and my friends standing on chairs with birds and nests!” But you don’t want people to think you’re a follower; you want them to think your idea is original to you. So when you start using those photographs, you feel compelled to explain that you started taking these way before anyone else ever thought of it.

And therein lies the problem. When you start worrying about whether you can claim that an idea is yours or wondering where it came from or if it belongs to you or someone else, you’ve left the world of art and creativity behind and have slipped over into left-brained thinking, the kind of thinking where you’re more worried about what’s popular right now or what sells and what other people will think instead of focusing on what’s in your head that you want to make visible to the world.

It’s tough. You see someone else doing something that speaks to you, and you want to do it, too. Or you see someone else doing something that’s a lot like what you’ve been doing for years. Is it your idea? Is it theirs? Do you go on doing it, or is it time to move on to something else?

Most of the artists I talk to tell me, when I ask them about this, that they can’t spend time worrying about what everyone else is doing. They don’t abandon their own style to follow what they see others doing, and they don’t worry when they see other people start to use images and palettes and themes they’ve been using for years. Why? Because they’re artists, and artists make work that comes from some inexplicable place even they can’t pinpoint (I know; I’ve asked many times), some combination of memories and dreams, things they see and things they hear, things they talk about or heard from their grandmother, the image inside a shadow box that hung in the hallway of their pediatrician’s office 30 years ago. From all those places. And none of those places. That’s what they’re following and trying to capture in their work. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing; they’re seeing what’s on the inside of their head and trying to capture it.

If you’re given a chance to share you work and write about it, why waste the first paragraph trying to prove that the idea behind it has been yours since birth? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve had the idea for the polka dots and the dog; what matters is what you do with it.

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5 Responses to The Provenance of Ideas

  1. RelishedArtistry says:

    Oooo, Ricë, this reminds me so much of a video that made the rounds a couple years ago about copyright and fashion… It was a Ted Talk. You might find it really interesting! It touches on a lot of the ideas that you’ve articulated!

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Thank you–that was an interesting TED talk. I didn’t know that about fashion–interesting reasoning for what they’ll copyright and what they won’t.

  2. Jinx says:

    As always Rice your articles are thought provoking. I agree with you completely here and when all the talk about copyright issues was going around i definitely was using my left brain too much. In the end i just decided to use my heart.

  3. Timaree says:

    Sometimes I let an idea go by simply because it’s too popular. I really can’t copy as once you take an idea, say wings or cone-shaped hats, and start to play with it your own style typically takes over and it becomes your own but I really don’t like to jump on too many bandwagons. I do like to play a bit so will try some things occasionally in my journal but mostly just want to do my own thing. It’s really more comfortable as no copyright issues come up to destroy that nice “zone” feeling. I don’t buy many books anymore as so many seem to be just that – jumping on the bandwagon. I’ve found little in them I want or can use. I look for technique books rather than style books.