Harvard Book Prize 2019: The dilemma of 'inspired' art

By Kristy Chan, Singapore International School (HK)
By Kristy Chan, Singapore International School (HK) |

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Each year, the Harvard Book Prize sends students to the US to participate in the Harvard Summer Programme, a scholarship programme that is an excellent opportunity to experience living and learning in a different culture. This year, 245 secondary schools across Hong Kong and of all band levels took part. Deserving winners are selected for the scholarship based on financial need and the quality of the essay they submit. The students' work reveals a range of perspectives from the young people of our city, and are often moving and thought-provoking.

This year, the theme is based on the book Disconnected by Carrie James, a sociologist and Principal Investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The theme calls attention to the moral and ethical blind spots, as well as the disconnects, in the use of the internet, particularly in social media and peer-to-peer online interactions. It also discusses the need to consider moral and ethical implications of online behavior to foster good citizenship.

Below is one of the winning entries by Kristy Chan from Singapore International School (HK), which has not been edited by Young Post.

If the 17th-century art world was dominated by European paintbrush-wielding men slaving over labours of love, the 21st-century’s is characterised by Instagram photos: paintbrushes sprawled over works-in-progress; fantastical digital art strewn across screens. Crammed with fledgeling pre-teens, precocious teenagers, and wizened masters, Instagram’s art niche is full of, well, art. 

Including copies of it. 

Though plagiarism has pervaded the art industry for centuries, social media has intensified it. Anyone can draw, stroke for stroke, the same art on their screen. Anyone can upload it. Anyone can share it. Anyone can call it their own. 

Now, I have a secret to confess. Years ago, I set up my own art account on Instagram. It is private now, where only me, myself, and I can see my crude attempts to be A Serious Artist. Envisioning my future as an Instagram great - think Kate Louise Powell, an undergraduate illustrator, or Sha'an D'anthes, famous on social media - I tried to follow in their footsteps. It was comically easy to mimic their style while attempting to ascend the upper echelons of Art Instagram. 

Yet, a pang of niggling guilt grew. Powell “named-and-shamed” thieves who reposted her art or redrew it; others even sold her art. 

I shut down the account in less than a year. Dismissing the most blatant "copies" - those completely identical to the original - I peruse the consequential, moral, and ethical dilemma of "inspired" art. 

“It’s wrong because I'd get caught if someone reported me, and I wouldn’t be able to post anymore." This consequentialist reasoning - “I'll get in trouble” - is a good starting place. 

However - and this underlay my reasoning when I first started drawing “like others” - we are one among hundreds, thousands, millions. As a speck in the universe, my actions are invisible, inconsequential, and immaterial. 

Refuting this requires a moral answer. It is not the consequence, but the very act of “copying” that is morally wrong. To do so disrespects lost hours poring over an ink-stained canvas. This hinges on the negative effects on the afflicted artist. 

Ethics stretches the moral imperative further. Before Web 2.0, individualism defined an artist. “Copying” saturates the market with the carbon copies. Carrie James would argue that this “disconnect” ultimately discredits the art community.

Still, ethics allow for a modicum of “imitation”. By pushing the boundaries of art we enhance it for present and future generations. The open access nature of social media also distributes resources equitably. The Louvre costs 17 Euros to enter - why deny a person the right to enjoy art? Social media decreases barriers to entry and “levels the playing field”. 

Blindly assuming that social media is an instrument hell-bent on destroying art is equally naive as making it a panacea. Social media is what it is - inanimate screens, wires, and electricity - until we shape it into something more. Deliberate application of disinterest and reason allows ethics, social media, and art to coexist.