Blog / 2014 / My TEDx Talk!

May 22, 2014

[video transcript]

The video was filmed and edited by the most excellent TEDxGeneva team, and I added the French subtitles.

I’m working on a book that expands on some of the ideas in this talk. It’s all about creativity, copyright, and why I put my art in the public domain. If you want to be notified when the book comes out, please sign up for my mailing list.


They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And they’re right, but that’s not all it is. Imitation is flattery, and it’s feedback. It’s affirmation, context, possibility. In a lot of ways, imitation is actually culture itself.

And if that sounds outrageous and sort of incomprehensible, I get where you’re coming from. I was not always such a fan of imitation myself. But then I became a professional artist, and, more specifically, a portraitist.

I make paintings like this one. I do other things too, but face-making is really my thing. And that means I am the luckiest kind of artist. After all, most artists can’t be sure that anyone besides their mother will care about what they’re doing. A portraitist, though, knows for a fact that they will have a fascinated audience of at least one. Love it or hate it, a subject is going to have a strong reaction to the portrait. They’re also going to have a strong attachment to the portrait.

If you think about it, when someone refers to a painting as “my portrait,” usually it’s because it’s of them and not by them. This, for example, is my portrait in that it’s of me, but it’s not my work. It was painted by my friend and collaborator, Becca Bernstein. Still, when I look at the painting, it feels a lot like it’s mine. And I know that, when Becca looks at the painting, it feels a lot like it’s hers. Feelings of ownership for portraits are a little bit complicated.

This painting drove this truth home early to me on in my career. The subject was a curator in my region and all the art bloggers were writing about him. Some of them used this image to add a bit of color to their articles, and one of them failed to credit me when he did so. He said that this image belonged more to the subject than to me.

Now, at first, the very idea of this was completely insulting, but, as I thought about it a bit, I realized that it wasn’t just my portrait work that doesn’t belong fully to me: it’s all my creative output. I need a world of inspirations and influences in order to make my art, and just because those inspirations and influences don’t always have faces doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, doesn’t mean that they don’t have a stake in what I’m making.

My art belongs at least as much to the world as it belongs to me. That’s why I don’t copyright my work. That’s why I put all of it directly into the public domain, free for use by anybody, in any way, for any reason.

Not a lot of artists will do this. A lot of artists believe in copyright. They believe that everything they create—every doodle, every email—all of it should belong to them. It just seems so obviously true. Like there’s no way to question it. Like it’s just a given of the universe.

Only it’s not.

The idea that artistic material can be owned comes from copyright law. And that means that copyright law isn’t just a legal reality, something for judges and lawyers to deal with, it’s also a conceptual reality. A paradigm. And, while it’s a very well-established paradigm, it’s not the only way of viewing culture.

Image use, like this portrait appearing on blogs. Or image copying, like this portrait appearing elsewhere. Or image remixing, like this portrait being remade by another artist. These are all things that copyright says artists should control. But what if we viewed them as things that should be done freely instead? What if we saw imitation as not only good but maybe even necessary and completely natural?

It certainly seems that way when you look at babies. Within an hour of birth, a baby can imitate the expression on another person’s face. And that’s just the beginning for us. By the time we’re adults, copying is so much a part of everything we do that we don’t even realize it anymore.

We’re not the only species for whom some kind of imitation is key. All social and intelligent creatures copy each other in some way, but humans do it particularly well. We are copycats. Parrots. We’re always finding ways to mirror each other, to be social, to get along. And the proof of our copying skills is in our languages and cultural expressions—technology, religion, art. The only reason why any of that exists is because we are excellent imitators.

If each of us wanted to be the originator of language—if each of us wanted to name things ourselves—we would never get anywhere. Someone has to start imitating in order for meaning to be assigned and communication to happen. Someone has to start imitating for language to come about.

So imitation creates language—creates culture—but it also creates a context for cultural bits, whether they’re new gadgets, paintings, fashion trends. And this cultural context is important for two reasons:

  1. it makes the cultural bit seem normal and therefore useful.
  2. it spreads the cultural bit to lots of people, some of whom will remake it for the next generation.

A good example of this is social media. Some of you may remember Myspace. It was cool at some point, and then it lost its prominence to Facebook and Twitter. These newer tools were basically the same thing, an online gathering place. But they threw out some of Myspace’s less popular features and added new ones. They’re basically an evolution, which is also known as an imitation with some tweaks.

It’s hard though to trace the exact beginning point of social media. I mean, you could say it was Craig’s List forums. Each of these forms was building on the things that came before—old things that provided a context for the new things when they came along. And the only reason why social media and the Internet even matter is because we use them, but the only reason why we use them is because they matter to a good number of people. So, in other words, it has to be a party—and specifically a party where we’re all doing similar things—in order for culture to come about.

All of which is to say that we, together, create the meaning-purpose-importance of online gathering places. We create the meaning of technology, religion, art. We create the meaning of the words I’m using. We do it together, by imitating each other.

So, culture evolves by imperfect imitations over time. And I know you must be wondering where you fit into this. I’m talking about imitation, and everybody knows that you are one-of-a-kind. Unique. We all are!

And it’s a good thing too, because, without our eccentricities, culture would be in trouble. After all, if culture evolves by imperfect imitations over time, someone has to provide the imperfections. So your quirks don’t just make you an individual: they’re actually the source of originality. With respect to art, you could put it like this:

Art = idea + technique + person

And it’s the person part of this equation that brings with it those delicious imperfections. It’s also the person part that can’t ever be imitated. Ideas and techniques though, those are ripe for copying, and I do a lot of that in my art.

Take this piece for example. It’s a painting of a male Dayak fruit bat nursing his young, a specialty of this fascinating species. To make the piece, I worked from photos I found online and at the library. I mashed them all up and made a composition that I was happy with—this is a drawing—and then I started painting. So these pictures are taken every day or every week depending on how often I worked on the piece, and, when I look at them, I see that I was struggling. So I did what I always do when I’m having trouble, I turned to the world, to my fellow artists. Specifically to 15th century art history. I was looking at the most famous images of a parent and child in Western art. Fouquet’s Virgin appealed to me in particular. So I looked at it very carefully and redesigned my piece based on what he’d done. I started again, building up the layers, bit by bit, until I made the painting.

I copied Fouquet. He’s neither the first artist nor the last one I will steal from so blatantly. But I don’t think anyone minds too much—and not just because Jean has been dead these five hundred years. When you look at this piece, I’m in it, and hopefully it’s only a pleasant surprise when you realize that Fouquet is there with me.

I always say that I don’t care about my art being famous after I’m dead. I go on and on about how happy I am to have my work appreciated here and now, and to be able to make my living as an artist, and it is truly awesome. But it isn’t everything.

The true measure of success for a work of art is that it become like Fouquet’s. That it be copied copiously. Remixed vigorously. That it become so much a part of our lives that we forget that there are laws preventing us from enjoying art as we’d like. In other words: the true measure of success for a work of art is that it feels like it belongs to us at least as much as it belongs to the artist.

That is what I want for my art, and it’s something I am beginning to see.

A friend of mine really liked this self-portrait, so she decided to photoshop her own face into the composition. This is a detail image of a larger painting, which is actually a reworking of Chagall’s I And The Village. A teenager in the UK saw the detail image and decided to make her own version in paint. Students and emerging artists often make portraits in my style. Sometimes I’m in on it. Sometimes a teacher has asked me to give students feedback. And other times, these amazing images just appear in my inbox.

My favorite example of my work being copied is this. It’s a translation of a book I wrote and illustrated with my paintings. Vivian Lin is a university student and artist in Hong Kong, and she did the translating work.

And the work that she did not only makes this book accessible to a whole new audience, it also proves the power of free culture. After all, if I had put copyright symbols all over my art and tried to keep a real hold on it, it’s likely that Vivian would never have felt enough ownership for this book to want to even translate it.

It’s said that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and, in these cases, it really is. But for a lot of artists it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a violation. These feelings aren’t very fun, but the artist doesn’t have to be having them. The reason why they’re having them isn’t because of the imitation. It’s because of their view of imitation. It’s the copyright paradigm.

Next time someone copies you, even if it’s to use your art to make a bunch of money and not give you any of it, instead of getting angry and hiring lawyers, maybe think about the imitation as an invitation. An invitation to collaborate. An invitation to learn about how your work is seen by others. Maybe try thinking about the imitation as a portrait.

A portrait is, after all, an imitation of a person. It may not be an exact imitation, an exact copy. It’ not made of flesh and blood. But a portrait is, by definition, recognizable. And when you look at a portrait of yourself—even if it’s just a snapshot—it can be quite confronting. Do I really look like that? Is that how people see me? A portrait can reinforce worries that you have about your appearance or yourself, but it can also remind you that you are beautiful.

A portrait can do that. All imitation does that.

Copying has a bad reputation these days. A lot of copying is made illegal by copyright law. While I won’t go so far as to say that all kinds of imitation are always good, I would ask you to reevaluate why we look down on it so much. After all, without imitation, we’d have no culture, and our delightful imperfections, those things that make us unique, would be meaningless.

The fact is it’s our ability to imitate that makes us the luckiest kind of animal. Love it or hate it, to be imitated is to be a part of culture. So why not love it?


May 30, 2018

You can now purchase or download my book You Share Good! And you can also watch this longer talk about freeing your art and yourself from copyright.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.


If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!