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Can 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?


This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 21 January 2010.

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