Sunday, November 17, 2019

Equine Realism And The Law Of Averages

One of the great things about creativity is its seemingly endless possibilities, limited only by our imaginations and aspirations. It’s absolutely amazing what people come up with, isn’t it? Just when we think we’ve seen it all, someone spins it all on its head!

Even so, we’ve chosen an art form with pretty strict limitations, haven't we? Equine realism has rules, nonnegotiable boundaries that direct our imaginations down a relatively narrow path. Even within this box, however, artists push in every conceivable direction, creating work that surprises, inspires, and delights in fresh, new ways. Really, when I judged custom minis at The Jennifer Show this year, all that fresh thinking was wonderful to see! Artists today are less hesitant to veer into the unconventional, willing to explore more novel depictions of the equine and it’s so exciting. We need more of this than we may realize.

Nevertheless, there are still limitations. I still saw similarities with past works because we’re dealing with a finite subject all the same. Horses only come in certain colors and patterns. They can only move in certain ways. They’re built as evolution dictates. Breed type homogenizes, and some phenotypes can look so similar as to seem nearly identical. We still have the confines of that box, the limited reality of our subject matter.

What's more, design and materials technologies for sculpture limit our options even further. Glass, ceramic, resin, metals, and customization can only support and achieve so much within the laws of physics and fatigue. We also want things to be archival—even shippable—so that means certain ideas just aren't quite feasible right now which can corral our possibilities even more. Sure, it would be amazing for accessible new tech to offer fully free-floating sculptures, for example, but for now we have to jury-rig supports and certain poses. And when it comes to customs, in particular, we'll see multiple variations on a theme since so many of us like the very same molds. 

Put all this together and we have an inevitable, unavoidable outcome: Similarities between multiple pieces simply due to the law of averages. When we have loads of minds working within this little box for all these years—and those in the future—we’re going to have overlap, spontaneously and independently. There’s only so many ways we can depict the equine available to us. Sure, those ways seem suitably plentiful, but that isn’t always the case. Similar ideas simply inspire multiple hearts. We’ve all seen the cantering warmblood, the windblown stock horse, the snorty trotting Arabian, the leg cocked drafter, the cantankerous mare, the pugnacious pony, the standing horse with a cocked ear and eyewhites, and the playful foal—and a plethora of others—many times over the years, haven’t we? The grullo sabino Paint, palomino high white Half-Arab, "skjevet" Fjord, dominant white Thoroughbred, isabella Lusitano, pintaloosa pony, dappled buckskin Teke, and other appealing colors and patterns have peppered our rings, too. And what of the same popular molds used over and over with similar interpretations? How many head-turned PAMs have we seen? And even with fantasy many times have we seen the striping of falcon or hawk wings on pegasus wings? Then—whammo—we open this up to the bigger arts landscape and this issue explodes in sheer numbers, often in uncanny ways. For instance, I just recently discovered that I'd thought up almost the exact same idea as Degas sketched out so many years ago. Almost down to the tail position! I about fell out of my chair! And completely unaware. Similar things just captivate us—and that’s not a bad thing. It’s simply the law of averages in that little box.

But you know what’s a bad thing? The knee-jerk accusation of plagiarism.

I really wish this would stop. Why? Well, contrary to belief, it’s exceedingly harmful to creativity by ever chopping down the possibilities artists can explore. What if the subject of “rearing Arabian with whippy tail” was off limits because some other artist did it? Or the visual of “twisty leaping Akhal-Teke” was verboten because it was already done? What if the concept of “red roan overo with cornspots Paint” was already taken? The idea of “trotting pinto mule foal with floppy ears”? "Densely fleabit Arabian with extensive blood mark"? "Horses playing?" "Horse with non-equine friend?" Or "mama bear mare protecting her foal"? If each new piece removes that concept from the pool, what will eventually be left? Now grandfather in all the past pieces from forty years of work—and also include the plethora of conventional artworks—and that becomes a rather tiny pool, doesn’t it? Really, it's an ever-shrinking skim of moisture on a driveway, that's what. 

Now it can be argued that artists can infuse various changes to make their pieces different, and that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that because of the law of averages, another artist can come up with a very similar, even the same, concept spontaneously and independently, including those little changes, in total innocence. Shouldn’t we give artists the benefit of the doubt? If for nothing else than protecting creativity in our community? While that seems counter-intuitive, it’s true nonetheless. Indeed, I know of one artist who hasn’t created some exciting new work because of fear of this accusation, depriving us all. Likewise, another artist and myself both came up with very similar ideas for a galloping Marwari totally independently and at the same time, yet we both ended up not creating those pieces to avoid being labeled a plagiarist. How unfortunate is that? This is the destructive power of this accusation. 

Now it can also be said that this effect forces artists to explore new routes of design, and that’s true as well. But it’s also true that we can’t always know what each other is doing! What are we supposed to do? Broadcast all our future plans to claim “ownership"? And what if we change our mind? And what if we're so enamored of our own original idea that coincidentally echoes another, we’re loathe to change it? An independently arrived at idea is still our own even if something similar already exists or will exist in the future. Aren’t we entitled to follow our own original inspirations? Indeed, there's a lot of work out there we don't know about so if we end up creating something similar to it, how is that our fault? When we start dictating what artists can and can’t create because of an inevitable overlap, aren't we actually squelching creativity, innovation, and inspiration? And what kind of limits are we placing on future artists, those not even around yet? When we start shrinking the pool of what’s possible, what we’re actually doing is destroying our arts community, not protecting it.

Now, absolutely, deliberately copying or borrowing too heavily isn’t kosher. It's wrong. Of course it is. But is this actually the case most of the time? I’m not so sure only because I’ve experienced and observed the reality of independent inspiration too often. Instead, I tend to believe that most of our artists are creating their works with integrity and honesty, according to their coincidental inspirations. Perhaps then it's newbies and youth who are doing much of the outright copying since some seem to be unaware it’s wrong. This is all the more reason to be kind and educational then, right? It’s a teaching moment, not a reason to go on the attack. In fact, in all my years involved in this community, I’ve only known a handful of artists who've actually flat out copied or borrowed too much, but that’s a tiny percentage in the grand scheme of things.

What’s more, ten artists could recreate the very same concept or even the very same photograph, and each one would end up different due to style and what each artist Sees and doesn’t See, likes or doesn’t like, focuses on or doesn’t focus on, etc. Each one might add their own special spin, too, like a flicked ear, different tail, cat tracks, or application of technique. So yes, we can infuse little changes, but we can also approach the very same visual and not actually be copying each other as well. Even so, those little alterations can be applied in a similar way, too, because so many of us like them. For example, a twitchy ear, a breezy tail, a pooky lip, a cocked head, Belton Spots, eyewhites, extensive mapping, stained feathers, or any number of similar tweaks inspire so many of us the same way. As long as we don’t actually outright copy someone’s work then, aren’t we allowed the happenstance of inevitability within a limited subject? Creating our own individual visuals that unwittingly end up markedly similar isn’t the same as deliberate, outright copying. It’s a different phenomena created by different circumstances. Even copyright law recognizes this unpredictability of creativity and is less likely to prosecute an independently arrived at idea that’s similar to another. And what of an artist repeatedly revisiting their own idea? What if they create multiple “pudgy pinto ponies”? Is that so bad? Indeed, this is a rather common practice in the art world as artists explore variations within a concept. It's called a series. Therefore, giving artists the benefit of the doubt and the room to be creative on their own terms, even when overlap happens, can actually encourage more new work.

It may seem another contradiction, but giving more brains the opportunity to work similar problems elevates our efforts to new heights, too, because we learn from each other. Studying how each artist approached comparable challenges is instructive and actually provides the opportunity to explore more options to make our own our own. For example, “arched neck standing, snorty Arabian” has been explored countless times, but each one is slightly different, isn’t it? But years ago I observed people accuse an artist of plagiarism for simply creating their own “stretched halter stance foal” because they thought this artist was copying the work of another. Seriously? How many times have we seen halter stretched foals in the past and how many more will be created in the future? So is this visual now off limits? Even if it’s on the same mold, don’t many of us often love the same ones? Isn’t it inevitable then that “stretched bay Hackney pony done from a Swaps" would happen at least twice? I know of two created totally independently. And what if we’re inspired by the work of another artist? Granted, it can be a fine linethat's certainly true. But it’s certainly possible we may not outright plagiarize their work while still being influenced by it. Because I also know of two trotting Hackney ponies in which one artist was directly inspired by another—and no harm, no foul. Influences happens all the time to tell the truth, even in the conventional art world. It can get even more complicated. I know of two artists who deliberately borrowed heavily from each other in a playful game of oneupmanship with perfectly good intentions. I was even accused of plagiarism of the PAM with Stormwatch's position even though the PAM never even entered my mind when creating him. He simply popped into my head one day so it was just coincidence that the positions were similar. I was even accused of remaking a PAM to create him when I can clearly show anyone the original solid epoxy sculpture. Let's X-ray him! Things aren't so cut n' dry when we’re dealing with a law of averages that involves inspiration bound by realism. Boiled down then, it also means that ill-informed assumptions or irresponsible speculation can be just as troublesome in this unfair blame game of plagiarism.

The unfortunate truth then is that not only is innocently-conceived work not getting created, but even worse, artists who are creating works in perfect innocence are being stomped on, their reputations besmirched, and their achievements tarnished because of this issue with plagiarism. Are those really the outcomes we want? Heck, I’ve not created certain pieces simply because of this. And you know what? I don’t think so anymore. Instead, I think I’m going to follow my individually arrived at inspirations and if those end up being similar to something else, so be it. BecauseheyI create in a fishbowl. I don't get out much. So when I judged TJS, there was a slew of work I'd never seen before, not even online. Yet some of those ideas echoed my own that I'd planned out in my sketch book years ago, only I hadn't gotten to them yet. So I can't create those now? Are we really okay with someone's creativity being stymied by the law of averages within a finite subject? When artists exploring their honest concepts free from worry of the stigma pushes the possibilities out even more? This benefits us all. How? Well, it fosters an artist's drive to imagine, explore, and innovate, enriching our arts and pushing skill sets ever further. In this sense then, weaponizing plagiarism only backfires on everyone and our future. Indeed, when we try to corral the honest creative experience, we risk killing it altogether. No serious artist particularly likes to create work exactly like another—we like to tell our own storiesyet making that box ever smaller will have the opposite effect. 

The reality is that an artist doesn’t “own” a general idea, only the very specific manifestation of that idea. This is why, for example, a photographer doesn’t own the nature of a tricep or the muscling of a neck in their photo, but only the very specific image of that specific horse in that specific photo as a whole, novel composition. This is why we have to ask permission of the photographer when we directly copy their photograph but we can still use the anatomical components as direct references to “frankenstein” our own original work together. It's also why countless photographers can take photos of the very same halter pose and not have to worry. "Arabian halter stance" just isn't an "owned" concept because it's just too common and intrinsically necessary in life. It's also why I own the very specific visual of Stormwatch but not the concept of "windswept rangy horse." It’s also why we shouldn’t get upset when multiple artists create “bay Saddlebred weanling with three white socks and a blaze” because imagine the future if this concept was off limits? And—hey—there will be oodles of exactly that color and markings on real Saddlebred weanlings in the future who'll serve as references for new artists. What's more, I know of a group of very upstanding artists who deliberately recreated the very same color simply to see how each different Eye would create variations. It was a very interesting experiment. So are they copying each other or the reference they all used? And how would we know without asking? I also know a group of ceramists who put the very same glaze on the very same piece simply to see how each kiln fired it. I'm one of them. And I’ve actually had other artists feel compelled to ask permission from me to create their own windblown mustang. What if I said “no”? What would I have deprived our community? If we punish artists for these benign explorations in overlap, what are we actually sacrificing? I suspect a lot more than we imagine. 

There’s this, too: Innovation begs imitation because many want to stay ahead of the curve. A new technique, a new look, a new effect, especially when more effective, will naturally spin into duplication. I remember when roans were done with the spray can or splatter technique then all of a sudden the hair-by-hair technique became dominant, for instance. I'm unaware who pioneered it, but is it wrong for others to adopt a new technique? How else will our arts grow? How else will we push the boundaries of what’s possible? I also remember when hairing was simply what we did as matter of course, then—boom—a prominent artist made sculpted manes and tails popular and it took off to become modus operandi today. So do we force artists to stick only to their own technologies even when that may disadvantage them? How in the world does that encourage growth and further innovation? Sure, some methodologies are proprietary in the art world, but are we more interested in elevating this unique art form for everyone in our genre, or do we care more about monopolizing outcomes? But I admit, I'm all about sharing because I want to see how others improve my methods. Maybe that's rash, but it's how I prefer to live my art life. I must note, too, that our community has a real penchant for sharing information compared to the conventional art world, and it's truly fantastic. It would be a shame to compromise it.

Nevertheless, I have heard the suggestion that creating work too similar to each other can compromise the value of the earlier piece, so how is that fair to collectors? That the distinctive visual itself has inherent value. And that’s a very good point, one that deserves reflection. We can’t ignore that novelty has an intrinsic value. Yet most upstanding artists seek to make their own work distinctive anyway, and so they may visit a similar concept but either by chance or by choice, naturally make it different enough to create a buffer zone. Undeniably, too, the sheer influence of artistic style can infuse enough difference to avoid too much exacting overlap. To be sure, different styles appeal to different people…and different judges. So while outright copying a piece's specific visual or novelty would definitely compromise valuemaking it clearly the wrong thing to doI’m not sure that unintentional or unavoidable overlap can have the same impact. How many "palomino ISHs with medium white" are out there now yet each seems to hold its value? Or how many lovely Khemosabi resins have been painted just like the grand ol' Khemo himself? 

So while encouraging artistic freedom can inevitably produce similarities between different works, sometimes markedly so, I still believe that’s perfectly okay. It just comes with the territory when we’re dealing with a subject unavoidably stuck in a box. Because what’s our best option here? Limit creativity by increasingly prohibiting swaths of subject matter or simply accept the nature of the box and give artists the benefit of the doubt? I choose to live by the latter because I've known too many artists with the honest desire to create their own honest work but end up creating similarities all the same. 

I’d like to repeat that it’s one thing to purposely copy another work unauthorized and quite another to inadvertently create something similar or even be inspired by a similar idea. To my mind, those are very different scenarios. And again—yes—that can be a very fine line. Even so, there's a big difference between copying a specific work and visiting a similar concept. As such, I would like to think that most folks consider all this when deciding which is which as new work emerges, choosing to err on the side of creative generosity rather than pointing a finger. Therefore, I chose to believe that most artists are upstanding and seek to express only their own individual, original fancies, even if they end up being similar. Is that naive? I don’t know. But I do see the law of averages at work every year despite all our best efforts to avoid it. And I do know the powerful desire to stay true to our own novel interpretation even if a concept has been visited many times before. And I do know what kind of creative future I want for this community. 

Even so, it’s easy to get twitchy when we perceive another borrowing too heavily or overlapping too closely. It’s easy to assume the worst such as spiteful or thoughtless intentions to steal our thunder. For example, if we come out with “standing Warmblood stallion” and that very year another artist pops out one, too, perhaps even close on our heels, slipping into resentment and suspicion is an easy slide. The rumor mill is also no help as some fan the flames to needlessly amplify the situation. Ill-informed speculation and careless assumptions can be very dangerous poisons and even more dangerous weapons. But while there have indeed been times when an artist did deliberately overlap on purpose, even spitefully, I prefer to think most arrived at their work with coincidental inspirations. Artists also tend to fill perceived holes in the show ring, funneling focus on those avenues of competition with more meager representation. This can cause an unintentional barrage of similar work all at once through no fault of anyone. For instance, Friesians spontaneously exploded on the scene back in the 90s, a particular streaky style of sabino became immensely popular all at once some years back, and several artists were coincidentally inspired by Gambling Man’s specific splash pattern when it was discovered by the community some decades ago. Performance requirements also confine what's possible even further which is probably why we see so much repetition of a concept with pieces designed for it. Sometimes it just happens.

Admittedly, too, I tend to think the best of people in this regard because I’ve just seen too many innocent similarities over the years and have known many of the artists involved. I've also seen artists ask permission from photographers to directly copy specific visuals with tremendous results that enrich the experience for us all. And what's more, I've seen the power of an originally inspired idea grip an artist’s imagination and compel them to new heights of accomplishment. Truly, it would be unfortunate to systematically squelch all this out of hand with that awful accusation of plagiarism. Maybe this optimism is a fault of mine. Maybe it’s foolish. But I don’t like the thought of limiting potential by dictating what form inspiration should take so tightly, even cruelly. Because it hurts to be accused of plagiarism, too. Here we create this shiny new thing we’re so proud of only to meet with suspicion, hostility, prosecution, besmirching, even snubbing. It can spook an artist outright, preventing new work from ever coming into existence, even almost killing the desire to create anything at all. And consider thisin this renewed age of the DIYer, what kind of serious threat does this accusation of plagiarism now pose? I worry it's a decided one.

I don’t know what the answer is. Is there even a solution to overlap? Should there even be one? Really, I wonder if it’s just not better to trust that most artists are creating with honest intentions or that they’ll naturally seek novelty in their work to make it distinctively their own. It cannot be denied that the serious artist does so out of pride and integrity anyway, and many artists in our community take their work very seriously to their credit. But even with every effort, there's always that law of averages that will ensure that innocent coincidental overlap sometimes happens. Nowyes—there have been cases of outright plagiarism. Yes—there have been times when an artist downright snatched another's concept to "beat them to it." Yes—there have those who have borrowed too heavily from another artist. Yes—there have been artists who thought they could do better and simply copied another's concept to "improve" on it. Yesthere have been those who base their work on another and try to pass it off as their own original creation. Yes—there have been those struggling with a learning curve seeking guidance in other work and end up borrowing too much. All this is true. But isn't it also true that many similarities could be accidental, a function of the law of averages within a finite subject? Is it really the best policy then to so easily burn those involved with the brand of plagiarism? 

It all depends on what kind of arts future we want and how we want to regard our artists. What kind of creative freedoms will we accept and which will we kibosh? In all this, I’d like to think we’d be generous, giving leeway to the accidents of coincidence and inevitable overlap. I’d like to believe we’d think the best of each other because how else can we build a cohesive community that’s inclusive and supportive of its talents, especially new ones? I want to assume we’d pause with the wisdom of experience and graciousness before dropping the anvil of accusation on our peers. Again, maybe I’m being naive. I hope not.

“There is no ‘right way’ to make art. The only wrong is in not trying. Not doing. Don’t put barriers up that aren’t there—just get to work and make something.” ~ Lisa Golightly

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