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The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem

Plagiarism  or Inspiration? Many artists including me do not start from nowhere. We tend to be influenced by history, surroundings, each other, or etc. The connectivity of influences has resulted out series of movements in art world. For instance, artists have found impressionism, fauvism, cubism, and so on. In the field of computer science, influences could be seen as risks of hacking. In the field of literature, some writers might call similarities of ideas as plagiarism.

In the essay, The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, the author demonstrates his views on adopting ideas and how people call the activity as plagiarism or not. He argues that sharing ideas and getting influences somewhat promote creativeness and generate next movement. He quotes, “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses.” I agree with his argument on embracing filiations. As I mention above, humans develop further to the next step as they get inspirations each other. For instance, John Currin is a current painter, and his artworks contain satirical figurative paintings. They show a wide range of influences including renaissance and romanticism.


These “contemporary” paintings of Currin are critiqued as a new type of genre in fine arts. His approaches to mix contemporary art and renaissance could have not been possible if he hasn’t been inspired by any. Then, should audience denounce his works for adopting others’ styles? I personally think that we should rather support each other to get inspired.




528 comments to The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem

  • Nancy

    It is interesting to read all the different posts on this essay? Did you read your other classmates take on the book.
    I don’t know how anyone could have a totally original idea. What would it be worth if it were not built on the ideas that came before…
    which is also different from plagiarism…taking someone else’s work as your own…do you think that’s true?

  • jyp323

    It is always difficult to determine the limit of “inspiration.” We might call taking someone else’s work as plagiarism, but “quoting” someone else’s work as inspiration. Even if some idea is inspired by the other, the idea itself is still worth of novel creativity. With passing time, inspirations could form trends of culture and another art movement. Who could blame the new trends inspirations create? I cannot say that creating own idea is more worth than getting inspiration of someone else’s worth. What is important is to build something innovative and astounding that audience gets excited. Audience judges the value of final works without concerning progress of the works.

  • ms6699

    At this point in history, it is not impossible to come up with a completely original idea, but it ain’t exactly easy either! Everybody is inspired or influenced by somebody or something else. Coming from a music background, I have often thought of this. I think of my influences, and those who influenced them and so on. Any artist has influences, whether it is another artist, life experience, environment, etc… As time moves forward, more and more art will be created, so by that reasoning, it will be more and more difficult to come up with anything purely original. Lethem gives various examples from music, film, television, poetry, etc to talk about influence. I sort of agree with Nancy in that I too am not sure how someone could come up with a 100 percent original idea. That does not however mean that you can not be groundbreaking in your art. One of reasons I came to ITP was to create something revolutionary. I know that sounds ambitious and perhaps a bit pretentious, but without all of my influences, I am not sure if I would have the ambition to attempt this. And there is a HUGE difference between plagiarism aka completely ripping off someone’s work, and being influenced by them. I could discuss this in great length, especially regarding the music world, but that discussion is for another day. Lethem’s essay had me thinking about my own influences, my influence on others, and even copyright issues on my work. These are all issues any artist should always keep in mind.

  • I admit that I get “inspired” by other people’s work and everything that I have seen has influenced my work. HOWEVER… I do get uneasy when someone else’s work feels similar to mine. Heck, I don’t even like it when someone has my name! In Kirby Ferguson’s Embrace the Remix, he used Steve Jobs as a good example of how most of us are. Steve Jobs once joked about Apple multi-touch patent licencing because he knew this was nothing new. Then he got extremely sensitive when Android was using multi-touch. He goes on by saying “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product”. As a creator, who wouldn’t feel this way? We all are generous till our work has been plagiarized.

    Copying an aesthetic, a framework, or a function seems inevitable these days. Open source is applaud and much appreciated. The level of making thing are much higher than the past and every body can achieve a certain level. Reinterpretation and having a different voice on a same topic seems to fascinate the crowd. Photoshop effects are there for everyone to surprise no one. Joy Garnett & Susan Meiselas’s Molotov Man brought out totally different discussions and it was for the audience to think and talk about various matters of the world.
    Thinking before making something, making people to think and letting people to talk these outlooks are where I stand now. Shepard Fairey comes to my mind as we are on this topic. He has caused so much dispute over this issue yet his art is loved by so many people. I suggest reading if you are more interested in this topic.

  • Ooops I meant to say

  • Jess

    I agree with Nancy’s line, “I don’t know how anyone could have a totally original idea.” For example, artists who are in the same cultural boundary would have been educated and inspired by similar resources. These would become both artists’ ingredient for creative works. At the same starting line, it is hard to make a incredible differences. However, someone would want to say the issue is the very intentional copy of idea or style, not just similarity. But who can judge whether it is a plagiarism (on purpose) or not? In the same context of era and audience, it is somewhat decided how to make audience surprised and amused for artists. For the Steve Jobs’ example Su mentioned before, he could not blame using multi-touch on Android which is competing in the same market. He still get compliment to create it before Android did, isn’t it enough for a reward in this complicated and changeable society?
    It doesn’t mean I support plagiarism and think it is the right thing. But I just hope someone’s creative work will not be denounced without considering the contexts because of its similarity with others. And if there is an intentional appropriation, it is needed to judge whether its result is an expansive reproduction or just be a mere iteration. For doing so, we will get more inspiring experiences from them.

  • jyp323

    After reading comments about all getting inspirations, android, and steve jobs stories, I really find it interesting about the lawsuit cases between Apple and Samsung. They are the clear examples of discussing inspiration and plagiarism. They are arguing over time for saying whether Samsung got inspired or plagiarized. How should we count on this problem? Several courthouses already have said that Samsung plagiarized over Apple. This is such a sensitive issue that I usually do not want to bring up with it. I also keep changing my mind about them. We cannot say that Samsung copied Apple’s signature business. On the other hand, Apple should encourage other companies like Samsung to get inspirations, and they should support each other to improve technology of today and future. What do others think about the case?

  • Tiffany "Hewlett"

    I definitely agree that in the case of companies such as Apple and Samsung to support each other to some degree in order to improve technology of the future. It has been rumored that some Apple products contain many of the same parts. Competition in technology is definitely important in order for improvements to be made; however, for something to improve, an original has to exist in the first place. The same can hold true for other areas of creativity as mentioned by the author including music and literature.

    In the case of music, while some may argue that every artist should be original, I do think that there is some importance to taking a piece of someone’s work of art, whether it be film, writing etc and then morphing it into your own. One person’s interpretation of something may be vastly different from another. Moreover, musicians and other artists may be able to reach a population of individuals that may have otherwise not have been exposed to certain works of art. This could as a result rekindle a new found appreciation for the original creation by a group of people who might have otherwise been ignorant to it.