What's So Bad About Copying? An Art Gallery Scrutinizes Unoriginality

New York art space P! is devoting six months to imitations, rip-offs, and reproductions.

sheller copying flowers 615.jpg
Peter Rostovsky's Night Blossoms, a Photoshop painting created on Wacom tablet

Is it possible to have an original conversation about copying these days? After all, it was Picasso who's thought to have said, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." And it was in the early 20th century that the influential typeface designer Frederic W. Goudy wrote that, "The old fellows stole all of our best ideas."

But as those quotes suggest, unoriginality can be valuable. That idea is part of what the new gallery P! (334 Broome Street, New York) will explore over the next six months, with a series of discussions and exhibitions centered around the volatile theme of "copying." As a principal of the New York graphic design firm Project Projects, Prem Krishnamurthy started P! to address issues in art and design that are otherwise under-discussed by the mainstream art world. Like: What, exactly, is copying?

Legally, plagiarism is taking the creative ideas of another and selling and/or publishing them as one's own. But even this definition is subject to considerable room for interpretation. Krishnamurthy is using his gallery space, in part, to examine that copying not as a did-you-or-didn't-you act, but as a spectrum of gradients rooted in three questions: In what context? Through what means? To what end?

"What is labeled as a 'copy' depends very much on both cultural and political questions: who is doing the naming and what they gain from it," Krishnamurthy says in an email. "The boundaries are very fluid and are often determined personally—and in the case of the law, the edges of what is acceptable often follow the interests of those with the most cultural or economic power."

The first phase of Krishnamurthy's planned six-month cycle of exhibitions and programs will center on a reading room created by the designers Rich Brilliant Willing. The space will host twice-weekly discussion groups that look at specific texts on copying from scientific, art-historical, legal, literary, and architectural points of view. Speakers on the schedule range from BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who will talk about memes, to the curator of the Museum of Chinese in Americas and a researcher from the Metropolian Museum of Art, who will focus on historical and contemporary copying in China.

This discursive program lasts through February and sets the stage for P!'s second act, which kicks off in March and will consist of five one-month exhibitions. Again, art, design, architecture, music, and more will be juxtaposed and take into account copying and repetition in unconventional ways. "In addition to showing artworks and finished pieces," Krishnamurthy says, "there will be works that recur in different versions between exhibitions, a fragmentary copy of a recent show that took place in New York, the premiere of a proposed platform for distributing low-cost art, a monographic exhibition that will be footnoted—literally—with its very sources and appropriations, and more."

Why tackle these issues now? For one, the Internet has brought the question of copying to the fore more than ever before. It's now so easy for something that exists in one context can be easily remade elsewhere in the world either by accident or deliberately. And only recently have graphic designs been accepted as an individual's intellectual property.

But also, copying is timeless. "Some scholars, such as Marcus Boon, would argue that copying and imitation are essential characteristics of human life—that you cannot have creative action without it," Krishnamurthy says. "We never begin with a blank slate; there is always something before us. ... For most of our human history, the study of art consisted of learning from one's masters through copying. Only very recently do we think of originality and innovation—nevertheless contained within a carefully circumscribed discourse, tradition, and frame—as being the primary value."

Krishnamurthy is one of a growing number of design entrepreneurs who have pushed beyond the traditional boundaries of their field into alternative communication platforms. Rather than just inhabiting the online social media "space," he's retrofitting the old fashioned storefront "to start an ongoing dialogue about value—how we determine the economic and cultural worth of certain objects and ideas," he says. "What is it about the unique, the iconic, the so-called original, that we still worship?" The name P!, he explains, stands for many things, and works on multiple levels, one of which is it's emotional: "Excited, enthusiastic, and ready-to-roll." The sentiment may be old, but it's in a very new place.