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Posted by on Thursday, 21 January, 2010 at 1:00 AM. Filed under: Essays

spot_the_differenceCan you spot the differences? Image from here

When you are at school, you get in serious trouble for copying your kaki’s homework. Detention, no TV for a week, a slap, or the worst response of all, the  “I am so disappointed in you” line by teacher, parent or other figure in authority. That is if you really care in the first place. As adults if you straightforward copy the writing/ideas of another person you get accused of plagiarism and your reputation goes down the stinker.  Which it should because that is a really really stupid/pointless thing to do. Unless you are able to (pay someone?) cover your tracks and repackage it so everyone praises you, you make money and screw someone else over. Not an altogether uncommon thing.

When you are an artist and especially in these Post Modern times copying is a bit of a grey area. Copying, which is essentially still a negative word has been replaced with derivation, appropriation, translation, mistranslation, quotation and other such inoffensive descriptions that have all become valid strategies in Art. The reason for this post is that I have noticed many of you saying, “I have seen this before, and I have seen it been done better before”, or simply “its derivative”. So in the Malaysian context and indeed any context what is ok and what is not ok? Western art history and its contemporary practice has and does shape what is being produced in Malaysia. Local forms, textures, subjects are there but essentially the way art is produced and its elevation to something meaningful has followed to varying degrees a Western model. So Malaysian art is to a certain extent derivative of Western traditions, but it is the way the local scene, reclaims and recontextualises these starting points that determines what is unique about Malaysian art. But perhaps your frustrations are based on the sense that this is still a very undefinable thing. And because what seems to be lacking is a an overall confidence in practice – work so often seems confused and only about the surface —  interested audiences get frustrated in Malaysia.

This then goes on to the idea about originality and uniqueness. Certain types of ideas bring excitement and that necessary sense of energy and urgency to keep things moving forward. We need those, because we like seeing new innovative things that create enjoyment or  intellectual stimulation. Or better yet both. So being aware of the fact that everything comes from something else, that nothing is truly original or without its influences how do we set the standard in a market driven Art world for reinvention? Do we support young artists who are still finding their own styles and trying things out (with mixed levels of success) or reject this outright? Do we embrace the fact that images, which are everywhere, can be cut and pasted, that inspiration, from whatever source is a good thing,  but call for a more intellectual approach to such methods?

To me it seems that the latter needs to be the case, I do not have a problem seeing similarities with international styles or straightforward liftings from pop culture as long as there is a valid reason for it AND that it helps to move Art forward. And yet the problem with this is who determines what is interesting and intellectually valid? What are the parameters for cultural and technical importance (if we remove the market from this altogether?). I would hope that it would be the Artists but we all know its not that simple.  I would like to see more and more thinking and less passive consuming to help diversify and strengthen contemporary art. This idealism of mine may just  help generate a momentum around creativity as something valid and meaningful rather than the notion that Art is just a system of status inducing objects that decorate homes and offices. So tell me, what do you think?


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  1. Zi Hao says
    21/01/2010 4:16 AM

    ‘Imitation’ (or being a copy-cat) is the way we learn, we tend to refer to things most convenient…and visual/performing arts evolved from the idea of imitating, reenacting, documenting the existing something. I suppose this has always been the case, it’s just that until Po-Mo where humans started to recognize this process/ritual as part of an ‘art’.

    To me, what makes good art is to be relevant, to be able to produce a specific visual experience/sensation at specific time and context.

    As for Contemporary Art – the art we are living in today – maybe it shouldn’t be on the basis of originality or expression, instead to be determined on the basis of relevance (on social issues, politics, culture, history, geography, technology etc.).

  2. Zi Hao says
    21/01/2010 4:20 AM

    Or maybe being relevant is being original?

    Because if one has considered many aspects before producing an artwork (or none at all), and the choice of considerations varies dependent on his/her upbringings and social/education backgrounds.

  3. Mind(not required) says
    21/01/2010 9:56 AM

    Let’s also shift from cultural/social theories to maybe more number and sciency analysis

    for 99.9% of the population, its monkey see,monkey do (it’s how we learn)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron

    then there’s the 0.1 who are these super freaky geniuses who see something, and shift the entire
    paradigm to a new level

    …somewhat related to the pareto principle? “roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes” or the 1% rule “99% lurkers on a site, with only 1% participation”

    most of us will be amatures / mediocre /passive observers in most things, spending much of our time copying, studying, or learning from the great ones (:/ i’m advocating a kind of elitism hoh?) and it’s fine i think so long that each person make their own decision on who / what they want to imitate. At the end of the day, enjoying and making art is still such a modern privilege for most people.

  4. kean says
    21/01/2010 12:29 PM

    hits the spot ;0
    another tangent: http://hyperallergic.com/2158/available-online-for-free/

    btw, can email me re: article$?

  5. Mind(not required) says
    21/01/2010 9:12 PM

    oh oh another way to think of this issue is how we have very sophisticated pattern recognition system in our brain..


  6. marshy mellow says
    21/01/2010 10:13 PM

    Can we also extend the discussion to curators?

  7. Mind(not required) says
    22/01/2010 1:31 AM

    wut curators copying curators, picking on the same few artists for shows agin and agin?

  8. wizard says
    22/01/2010 4:00 PM

    Malaysian art is not different from the Art of the world, A number of our legends and top artists are educated in the West or overseas such as Latiff Mohidin, Tajuddin Ismail, Yusof Ghani and Jai. How can one define Malaysian art as being truly Malaysian. These artists came back from the West and brought back a Westernized practice of painting or image-making but made the pieces “Malaysianized” by painting local subject matters like a Malay man in sarong, a keris wielding youth or unsurprisingly the Twin Towers. So when you looke at it, the Malaysian Art practice is a copy-cat of the Art trends of the West though they not copies after the artists depict indigenous subject matters. Though this pattern in more evident in the works of young artists that are trained in Malaysia but blatantly copies styles of contemporary artists from the West whom they study via books bought at Page One or through Googgling. Copying is OK here as long as your audience does not know who you copy from.

  9. THEY says
    22/01/2010 7:30 PM

    “Pago Pago” teach me to understand my graffiti :D !!.. yo Eva this is cool writeup :P

  10. Yusuf Martin says
    23/01/2010 5:38 PM

    Western styles continuing to influence Malaysia art has troubled me since I first settled in Malaysia. My first consideration was for Malaysians to develop a uniquely Malaysian style of art, like the Haitians did in Haiti.

    However, using art historical hindsight I realised that emulation had always been the way of art, and that something new has to evolve from something, somewhere – even if it is from Western art styles.

    So, patience, I guess is the message. Malaysia, and Malaysians are slowly evolving their own styles. It is an exciting time for Malaysian art.

  11. Zi Hao says
    25/01/2010 1:58 AM

    For the reason Yusuf has pointed, I think artists should study history, culture, heritage or social science in regards to ones’ context.

    Leave art history and fine art course. Understanding too much of the theories and trend of styles will then sink the artists into the same linear progression, either he/she emulates, develops and improves, or rebels against. It still adheres to something.

  12. 阿辉 says
    29/01/2010 6:06 PM

    在马来西亚艺坛的脉络里恐怕是资本家造就艺术家创作‘家族相似 ’的艺术饰品。是的,艺术家没个性,懒惰,投机,短视,庸俗,肤浅。自己没志气还怪别人,这还成世界吗?

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