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Musings after Magritte

A woman should mix fake and real.  To ask a woman to wear real jewelry only is like asking her to cover herself with real flowers instead of flowery silk prints.

--Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

Why is it that copying a jewelry design or a floral print fabric may give rise to liability under U.S. law, while creating a representation of a natural gem or flower is likely to cause neither legal nor ethical concerns?  Why is it OK to curl a zipper to resemble a rose, but potentially problematic to curl a zipper to resemble another designer's zipper rose?  Why would Coco Chanel (and the modern fashion house that still bears her name) celebrate fake pearls but not counterfeit logos? 

The reasons for intellectual property protection are complex and sometimes controversial, but such protection does not extend beyond human creations.  God, Mother Nature, or whatever atomic collision created the beauty of the natural world is not, legally speaking, an author or inventor.  Even when a talented horticulturalist breeds a new variety of rose, and is duly recognized by the legal system, the scope of the patent does not extend to an artificial fabric representation of that partnership between plant and human animal, nor should it.

If all beauty arguably originates in nature, from the "fearful symmetry" of both Blake's tiger and his verse to the curves of the Venus de Milo to the fractal patterns in Jackson Pollock's splatter paintings, then all creators are to some extent copyists.  That doesn't mean that there's literally "nothing new under the sun," in the frequently decontextualized phrase from Ecclesiastes.  Nor does it undermine the legal system's reflection of our desire to encourage and/or recognize human creativity.  But it is a worthwhile reminder -- like Magritte's juxtaposition of a floral arrangement and the landscape behind it in "Le Plagiat" -- that art imitates life.  (And vice versa for Oscar Wilde fans, but that's a meditation for another day.)

 

Le Plagiat (The Plagiary), 1940

Thanks to the fabulous Ariana Lindermayer for sending the inspirational image!