Friday, August 12, 2011

Great Artists Steal

Watching some videos of Korea's Got Talent on Youtube, I came across this dancer named Joo Min-Jung.

Wow. In Min-Jung's original audition performance, she was asked if she knew Monster MG, a dance group that had auditioned previously for Korea's Got Talent in another city.  They wore similar costumes and danced similar styles.  Min-Jung said she had been contacted by Monster MG one time, and it appears there was a bit of tension because she had a similar costume and style; the insinuation could be that she copied Monster MG.   She told the KGT judges that she had already been wearing the costume for a year without inspiration from them, and she was confident in her own dance abilities.  If she can outdance them, then there's no reason to change her outfit.

Girl's got spunk.  :)  And guess who's in the finals now?   The funny thing is, guess who turned out for certain to be copying someone else?  That's right, Monster MG.  People all over the web cried foul, saying that Monster MG's performance ripped off Poreotics, the season 5 champions of America's Best Dance Crew.

Monster MG apparently finally admitted this and apologized for it.  And apparently Poreotics accepted; the Poreotics group doesn't strike me as the type of people to get into mudslinging bouts anyway.  But Picasso is noted to have said that "Great artists steal", a quote that has been used by modern venerated visionaries like Steve Jobs.  So why is it such a crime if Monster MG copied Poreotics?

The full Picasso quote is in fact: "Good artists copy.  Great artists steal."  Or, depending on your source on the web, it might be: "Bad artists copy.  Good artists steal."  I couldn't verify.  But it is clear that Picasso thought there was a difference between so-called "copying art" and "stealing art".

Perhaps it's as simple as this.  Break down the attributes of stealing.

  1. Take without permission.
  2. New owner has it.
  3. Old owner doesn't have it.

Think about this.  If the old owner still has it, can it be considered stolen?  Or is it simply copied?  When the concept of stealing is applied to conceptual/aesthetic creations like art (rather than functional creations like socket wrenches), the more important aspect regarding ownership is really who does the world give credit for the creation.  If I painted the Mona Lisa, nobody would claim I stole Leonardo da Vinci's work.  If someone gets the credit for something, they're probably getting it because they did the best job to make that thing as beautiful as it could be and made it their own.  Is Monster MG's performance better than Poreotics' performance?  Did Monster MG do anything to significantly improve on the routine?  Or was it simply a blatant ripoff that wasn't even as good as the original?

And maybe that's the best watermark for a great artist's act of stealing: when an artist can make a separate work his/her own.  Inspiration has to come from somewhere.  It's what you do with the inspiration that counts.  Another famous artist accused of stealing much is Shakespeare.  Some people accuse him of having no original ideas and simply copying both contemporary and ancient playwrights.  Others simply say he was retelling stories in his own manner.  Whatever the case, some of the most iconic stories of our time are attributed to this man, and it is a point that all of those plays bear his classic mark and imprint.

I wonder if there would have been less of an uproar if Monster MG made significant improvements to the Poreotics routine.  Would they have been lauded instead of lambasted?  But they didn't do anything to improve the work.  And I think that's why it's so easy to be upset with Monster MG.  They could be easily viewed as a no-talent group trying to pretend to have the talent and creativity of Poreotics by performing a dance as their own creation, instead of giving credit to Poreotics.  On America's Best Dance Crew, the groups have to choreograph their own stuff, so you know the groups have creative talent.

What would happen if stealing inspiration was actually encouraged and coached?  How to take inspiration for something that's amazing and make it your own.  The concept is interesting, and we see a ton of YouTube videos these days for fantastic music covers and mashups.  I don't claim to understand all of the legal things that might be happening behind the scenes (for example, look at what happened to Love Story Meets Viva La Vida by John Schmidt, and how it became Love Story Meets Love Story due to legal issues).

As stated in the presentation, some have tried to replicate this philosophy for functional type of stuff (eg. open source software) with varying levels of success.  But I suppose that it's important to note that most art, especially in popular culture, is trendy.  That is also the case for technology.  Microsoft stole and owned the basic concepts of today's personal computer graphical user interface. Here's a scene from Pirates of Silicon Valley, one of my favourite movies. The scene captures the seed of the personal computer's graphical revolution most excellently.

It's unfortunate for Microsoft that personal computers are becoming more and more irrelevant.  Apple saw the trend and opportunity, and moved heavily into iPods, iPhones, and now iPads.  Personal computers are still significant, but less significant each day.  Microsoft did not see that trend coming.  Some art, like the Mona Lisa, is timeless.  Some art, like that of popular culture, is only trendy.

The next time you see an uproar about someone stealing something, ask yourself one question.  Did the stealer do anything to improve upon whatever was stolen?  Because if improvements were made, the world is probably better off, and the previous owner was probably incapable of making those improvements.  Otherwise, would we not have those improvements already?  In the marketplace, to the victor go the spoils, including credit.

And to Joo Min-Jung:  you go, girl!  :)

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