The Art of Copying


What is the difference between copying and being original? Critics, sociologists, cultural theorists, and creatives have been debating these questions, and despite many people voicing strong opinions on the subject, the answers remain a paradox.


Raise your hand if you are familiar with Pablo Picasso’s declaration that “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Assuming that many readers’ hands will be up, it is likely that Picasso’s statement could further our philosophical contemplation of this complex subject. After all, the statement comes from a man who has been globally acknowledged as one of the most original artists ever.

Other well known creatives agree that good artists are, and should be, inspired by references when creating their masterpieces. They argue that creativity comes from inspiration, namely things that are seen and observed. For example, Jean-Luc Godard states, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.” This attitude implies that creating artwork involves reinterpreting something that already exists in order to make it relevant. Similarly, Albert Einstein once said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” and Antoine Lavoisier believed that “Nothing is created, everything is transformed.” These quotes suggest that originality can be achieved by applying a new, creative vision to an older reference, thus creating a unique hybrid.

This conclusion raises another question: 

What is the difference between copying and being original?

The relationship between prototype and reproduction is fraught with complications, for the two are separated by a thin, subjective line. 


The idea that a work of art needs to be completely different from those that have preceded it is relatively new. Original artwork is often defined as “a work of art that has not received from others, nor copied…the work of others”, according to an article on White Review Online written by David Shields. In an article on Artsy, ‘The History of Copying’, Jessica Backus discusses the fact that in the West, esteem for original artwork was initially linked to the rise of the museum in the late Eighteenth Century. As galleries began making authentic pieces visible to the public, the value of artists’ unique creations increased. Shields agrees that our definition of originality is a modern one: before the Eighteenth Century, creatives prided themselves on their connection to past works and embraced the similarities between one generation and the next. An artist was only as good as his or her adaptation of past ideas. Conversely, today, many artists go out of their way to avoid any connection to classical creations.

Jean Baudrillard’s book, ‘Art and Artefact’, develops interesting debates around originality, art, artists and their meanings. Baudrillard observes that, just as historians analyse former political and social events, artists examine historical artwork. In fact, most modern, artistic movements encompass quotation, stimulation or appropriation, and are thus affected by the past.

To be an artist in the modern day is to be influenced by the works of all the creatives who have gone before you.

The book continues by referencing Walter Benjamin, stating, “There was an aura of originality.” This phrase highlights the paradox of the debate on originality: although we expect artists to produce something completely independent and unique, inspiration has to come from somewhere. This means that it is almost impossible for a work of art to originate from nothing. Shields concludes, “The truth is that original artworks are all borrowed, in some way, from the rich visual history of our collective past.”


Let’s look at some of the masterpieces that are highly respected and considered original in today’s time.

For example, Roman artworks are regarded as masterpieces in their own right, yet they are in fact copies and appropriations of Ancient Greek art

Picasso might never have come up with his breakthrough artworks without the reference of African sculpture. 

Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ is known to be based directly on Apelles’ similar depiction from the Fourth Century. 

William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ takes its name directly from Arthur Brooke’s poem, ‘The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet’, from 1562. 

Édouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is a reworking of Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, which is a reworking of ‘Sleeping Venus’, which is itself a reworking of Francesco Colonna’s ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’.

Using these examples, we can come to the conclusion that original artwork is an individual response to ideas that have been expressed visually in one form or another for centuries. Every work of art is a continuation of a collective story. What makes something original today is the artist’s adaptation of, or point of view on, his or her reference in light of modern society. Baudrillard comments, “We must not add the same to the same, then to the same again: that is poor stimulation. We must expel the same from the same. But this disappearance must be a challenge, that’s the secret of art seduction and originality.”