The Fuzzy Line Between Inspiration and Appropriation

When teenager Jéan-Marc Togodgue gave an anatomical drawing of a knee to his doctor as a thank you, he couldn’t have known the drawing would end up on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art, in a Jasper Johns painting. Similarly, when Dawn Dorland shared her feelings about her kidney donation on Facebook, she didn’t think her words would end up, as described in Robert Kolker’s New York Times internet-breaking essay “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” “… trapped inside someone else’s work of art.” A story about a kidney and the drawing of a knee bring up age-old arguments about plagiarism and appropriation — think Paul Gaugin, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol. These headlines highlight the role power dynamics play when drawing that fuzzy line between inspiration and appropriation.

Sonya Larson, the author of “The Kindest” which drew inspiration for Dorland’s donated kidney, and Jasper Johns, the painter of “Slice” (2020) which made use of Togodgue’s drawing, made works of art available for public consumption. Both now face judgement for incorporating the efforts of another person (which were not for public consumption) into their works. In a public arena, Larson and Johns have been praised for their creative accomplishments — put on pedestals above where Togodgue and Dorland stand. Some might say the public praise puts the lauded artists in positions of power. But the power dynamics in each case differ.

Johns is a wealthy White man. Togodgue, who is a Black immigrant minor, has not accused Johns of holding his drawing captive. In fact, he is proud of his inclusion in Johns’s work, recognizing the artist’s power, even saying, “This guy is as big as it gets.” That being said, while he has not slung accusations at Johns, Togodgue’s American guardians and their lawyer colleagues, were not as benevolent. The Johns party, and the Togodogue party have settled on a licensing agreement.

In the case of the kidney story, Larson — standing atop the creative pedestal — is a woman of color. And Dorland, a White woman who had not been published at the time her kidney donation had worked its way into a short story, has slung accusations — engaging lawyers to lay claim to, or to pull the curtain on a work of art that had amassed $452. Larson has sought her own legal support. Both women keep one-upping (or one-downing) each other on the power- chain. There has been no settlement.

Consider how politics of race, gender, age, class plays out in each case. Consider: Where Togodogue felt pride, Dorland felt scorned. But also consider the conditions that led Larson and Johns to use somebody else’s work, without securing consent.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “appropriation” as the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. The word “plagiarism” is derived from the Latin word for “kidnapping,” plagiarius. At the core of both terms is the act of taking, thus also the significance of consent. I learned this important lesson, as an art student, when a classmate presented my work as his own. He explained each color, texture, and shape in his screen print with the dexterity of a poet while the teacher grinned her approval, and my mouth hung open. During the break, I pulled the teacher aside and explained that the print she was enamored with was actually pulled from my screen which I’d left in the studio’s racks. “And …?”, she asked. “And he stole from me!” I shot back. “That’s quite an accusation. His only offense, as I see it, is that he didn’t ask your permission to use the image. In fact, you should be honored that you inspired him.”

Appropriation can be nuanced. In music, for example, beats and rhythms are sampled and influences get piled on top of each other as genres evolve. But people in power have always had a way of working nuance to their advantage. If consent is also nuanced, are we ready to admit that creativity and power go hand in hand?

This is not an argument for how to choose your side in the kidney and knee debates. But it is a prompt to consider yet another way in which entitlement, and power, get folded into creativity, shaping what we read, what hangs in galleries, what gets brought to courts of judgement. And it is a call for each of us to recognize our own position on a chain of power and make decisions responsibly. Because in this age of consent, the hope is, we know better.

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