Three Pipe Problem: Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup

Rather than viewing the mashup as a modern phenomenon, it could also be described as a modern and digital re-iteration of practises long used by artists from the past. From ancient Roman copies of Greek sculpture, to Raphael’s numerous quotes from sources as diverse as a Roman sarcophagus, a  Memling portrait or a drawing by Leonardo. The determination of what constitutes influence, homage or direct plagiarism is a complex undertaking, with accompanying legal concerns raised since the fifteenth century.

via Three Pipe Problem: Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup.

A typically engaging post from Hasan Niyazi’s art history blog. It neatly presents a historical context for modern mashups.

Looking at someone else’s creative work sometimes provokes an artist into thinking what he or she would do with that same subject, or it inspires a new twist, or even the direct thought “Gee, if I ever need to draw the face of somebody shrieking their lungs out, I am definitely going to remember how da Vinci did it in his cartoon for ‘The Battle Of Anghiari’!”

Theft is theft, and when a lazy creator blandly copies the work of another, the work usually tells the tale within five seconds. But it’s no good to recognize an influence and then dismiss the second work without thinking any deeper. That reaction is ignorant of the creative process, and it’s contemptuously dismissive of the amount of hard work and innovative thinking that the original work inspires. George Lucas himself acknowledged that “A New Hope” was hugely influenced by Kurasawa’s “The Hidden Fortress.” But would anyone deny that Episode 4 is an original work?

Today, we all acknowledge that designing software and hardware is a creative, even an artistic, endeavor. That’s a welcome change in attitude. Engineers were once perceived as just a bunch of dull technicians ticking items off of a list of features and specifications under fluorescent lighting. Now, we often think of these men and women as artisans who want to make something that functions beautifully.

If we’re going to fully embrace this new perception, however, we need to acknowledge that the artistic process is universal, whether the thing the artist creates is a single painting or 10,000,000 phones. It’s the same in Jony Ive’s day as it was in Raphael’s. Software patents, as well as the most hysterical superfans of a platform, try to pretend that art is made in a vacuum and that ideas, like real estate, exist with firm boundaries and sole ownership. Hogwash on both counts.

Yes, theft is theft. Sure, a direct, lazy copy is easy to spot. But when Google pivots their new mobile OS away from keypads and towards multitouch after they see the iPhone, and then Apple changes the iPhone’s notification system after they see Android, they’re just following in the footsteps of the Old Masters. It’s fine.

6 thoughts on “Three Pipe Problem: Alteration and invention – Raphael, Vermeer and the mashup

  1. Mike Tonge

    I think you’re confusing engineering with UI and casing design. Although engineering is used in both of these functions, it just supplies the brushes and chisels required to do the job.

    Engineering can be an art though. The human brain is incapable of dealing with more than 7 variables simultaneously, so we sometimes have to use intuition to solve a problem. I find it’s the greatest source of job satisfaction when it works out.

  2. Will shakes

    I grok what you are trying to say, because it mirrors my thoughts. However, when I passed my ipad to my wife to read, she thought it was “to nuanced” just our 2¢

  3. Ed Ever

    ok, imitation is not theft. but the yokels who bought the first imitation iphones (android) *and crowed about it,* crowed about it because they *got away with something.*

    it wasn’t stealing — it just felt like it.

  4. John Holderried

    I just read an article on this subject, from the GAMES magazine July 2012 issue – called “Ongoing App Plagiarism”, by Thomas McDonald. All about how apps similar to Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, etc. are flooding the market. How Mafia Wars is just a copy of Mob Wars, MegaCity is a copy of CityVille, Dream Heights is a copy of Tiny Tower. How there’s a fine line between “tribute” and “plagiarism”. Check it out if you can, very insightful.

  5. cpt kangarooski

    Well, game rules aren’t copyrightable, and while they are patentable, it seems rare that patents are taken out on them (the Magic ‘tap’ mechanism for card games is the only notable one I can think of).

    So it may be distasteful, but that’s about the worst you can say. Especially since the later party may do a better job, or make a slight change that’s a great improvement, and which would not have been possible without the opportunity to use what came before. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1590’s) is better than Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1560’s).

    On the whole, I’d rather have the flourishing diversity of ideas and the opportunity to choose what’s best than to have the one way from which there is no deviation and no meaningful choice.

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