Ownership and Artistic Credit in Bonsai by Will HeathBonsai by Janet Roth created under the supervision of Boon Manakitivipart. Most recent wiring and branch setting by Michael Hagedorn. Photograph by Sam Edge used with permission of the copyright holder, Boon Manakitivipart.There has been some discussion on Internet forums recently regarding if, or when, it would be acceptable to show a purchased bonsai. By purchased bonsai it is meant a bonsai that has already been styled by another artist and not styled by the purchaser themselves.
Another often-debated issue revolves around the question of when exactly does a purchased bonsai becomes the new owners and when is it acceptable for the new owner to claim the bonsai as their own work.
With the recent discussions on the Internet and the current active planning of a professional American World Class show, these issues are indeed pertinent and need to be addressed.
In the following article I will merge these two debates together, as I feel they revolve around the same issues and arguments. I will explore many of the justifications used to avoid giving credit to the artist that actually created the bonsai and I will compare many of these thoughts to the same issues in other art forms. For the purposes of this article I will take a strict hard line view that will advocate always naming the artist in all but one scenario, but in the end, I'll leave the final decision as to how these subjects should be treated to the artists, the owners, the patrons, and the people who makes the rules for the shows.
One of the most often asked question on this subject is, "When does a purchased bonsai become that of the new owners?" The answer is simple, never. Well almost never, there is one exception that I will explore in detail later.
It doesn't matter how long you own a purchased piece of art (bonsai is indeed an art form, so I will use other art forms as examples on which to base my thoughts on) the artist is always recognized. Art collectors the world over have long sought after and purchased works of art for their private and/or public collections. Many works of art have changed hands quite a few times over the course of history, owners have changed, and yet one thing always remained constant, Monet's "Water Lilies" have always been Monet's "Water Lilies" and never has the owners name been attached. This work is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, how silly would it be for it now to be referred to as the Art Institute of Chicago's "Water Lilies" How confusing would such a titling process be when over the course of years the name would change with each new owner until eventually maybe the original artist's name would be forgotten?
Any other work of art always has the artists name attached to it, always. It doesn't matter who buys it, where it is shown, how long it has been owned, the artist created it and the artist always gets the credit. Imagine if a private collector bought Monet's "Water Lilies" and then painted over Monet's signature with his own, the art world would certainly attack that, some would scream plagiarism, it would certainly be unethical, some would call it criminal. Even if the new owner just painted over Monet's signature without signing his own and allowed people to "assume" it was his own work, it would still be unethical.
Some state that since the tree is a piece of living artwork, it shouldn't matter who does the work on the tree. This couldn't be farther from the truth. It always matters, when one fails to mention who created the artwork, they dishonor the original artist and they purposely or unintentionally take credit for the creation and therefore commit plagiarism. Omission of the truth is just as bad as a falsehood.
This leads right into the common argument that once the new owner prunes, trims, wires, or re-pots the bonsai then the original artist needs no longer to be named. The thinking here is that since the bonsai needs to be maintained and the original artist no longer does so, that "ownership" transfers to the new owner automatically after a certain task is completed or a certain amount of time has passed.
Ownership is not in question here; there is no doubt who "owns" a piece of art, well except in those cases where items were stolen during war times, but even then, possession is not, as is commonly claimed, the basis of the law. When Di Vinci painted "The Last Supper" for the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the refectory "owned" the work of art; after all, they commissioned it. If I commissioned Walter Pall to design a bonsai for my business that would be displayed in the foyer, I would "own" the bonsai once it was paid for. However, Walter's name would always be attached to it, even though I would have to water it, trim it, and eventually re-pot it. I could not ethically show that bonsai without his name attached, ever, well except in one case, which I will get to shortly.
Paintings and sculptures change over time, they degrade, fade, become stained, and even get touched up, but the original artist still remains attached. When Pinin Brambilla Barcilon restored Leonard Di Vinci's "The Last Supper" they not only removed other attempts at restoration, but they painted over some areas as well. It was a twenty-year project that left a completely restored painting that many think lost its original brightness in the process. After all this, it is still Di Vinci's Last supper and not Pinin Brambilla Barcilon's Last Supper.
When Italy's premier restoration institute for stone and marble, Opificio Delle Pietre Dure was chosen to restore Michelangelo's David it cause quite a stir because of the techniques that were slated to be used. Years later it is still Michelangelo's David and not Opificio Delle Pietre Dure's David.Bonsai by Mauro Stemberger. Originally imported from Japan by the Nippon Bonsai Center. Enrico Savini purchased the tree at Nippon and some months later he sold it to Mauro Stemberger. Mauro Stemberger and Enrico Savini completed the first styling together.
Why would a Bonsai created by John Naka ever be anything else but a Bonsai created by John Naka? If Joe Smith bought one of Naka's trees, at what point would it become a Joe Smith bonsai? If a major collection bought one or received one as a donation, would they ever not mention it was a John Naka creation? Why should a private owner treat it differently?
Taking this to its logical conclusion, when could Joe Smith show his purchased John Naka bonsai? Certainly never in a judged show because like it our not judged shows award the creator of the bonsai.
I am aware that many will argue with the above statement but the truth is the truth. Judged shows are quite clear in their rules which often state how long a person must have owned the bonsai for, some insist on disclosure of the original artist, some require that the work must have been done by the entering artist, and an artist caught entering a "ringer" is quickly chastised and dishonored or at least looked down upon by other artists. Why would these rules be in effect if only the tree is being judged? It's not the bonsai that is being judged, it is the talent that created it that is being judged.
Certainly most shows do not put the artist's name on display with the bonsai but simple questions will reveal that this is done for two reasons. One is for "security" and the other is to prevent bias on the part of the judge toward any particular artist or artists.
Judged shows from the Ginko Awards to local club shows judge the talent of the artist and not the work of art alone. This is why people compete, it is why awards are given, it is why people are quick to congratulate the artist on his placement, it is why such awards are included in the artists? bio, and it is what makes an artist famous.
In Japan, where I understand that many think that more emphasis is based on the tree and where people are known to purchase a world-class bonsai one day and then show it the next day, things are looked at differently, but are they so different indeed? Based on the huge amount of people who buy bonsai to show, many believe that, there at least, it is all about the tree and not the artist. This must be seen in the light that great bonsai artists in that country enjoy a celebrity status and advertised or not, their work is well known to the community. In this environment, naming the artist may not be important because most people know anyhow.
Looking at Japan and the culture there, can we say it is all about the tree? I don't think so; certainly newly purchased bonsai are entered in major events without giving credit to the artists, but is it the bonsai that is being judged or the original artist? The bonsai is indeed being judged but what is the bonsai but the sum of the artists? talent? Bonsai don't create themselves, it is the artist that brought it to the point that it can be shown, that it can win awards. It is the artist that had the vision, it is the artist that did the work, that cared for the tree, and that turned a living thing into a piece of art. A bonsai is the culmination of the artists? vision, talent, and work, it is not the bonsai that is being judged, it is the artists' work that is being judged. A bonsai is the sum of the artists' talent, skills, and knowledge, without which, it would simply be a potted plant.
Let's refer to other art forms again. New artists, be they painters, sculptures, pianists, or whatever, often enter competitions where prestige can be won if their artwork is judged to be the best. These competitions can mean a great deal to an artist, they can make or break a career sometimes. What is being judged here, the artwork or the person who created it? It is the talent of the artist that is being judged and this talent is revealed in the creation. Without a creator there is no creation.
Now let's say I am wrong in my assumptions that the artist is judged and the bonsai is actually what is being judged, again an artist created the bonsai and that artist's bonsai is the one that will win (or not). It is only ethical to name the artist.
Andy Rutledge says in his article "Misplaced Credit in Bonsai" ( http://www.andyrutledge.com/articles/nocredit.html
)"Learn this learn it now and keep it forever in your head: The artist who grew the tree or who first styled the tree and then sold it to an enthusiast or other artist does not display it as a bonsai in the exhibit where it wins an award. As I've said before, the tree itself is just a component of artistry. What wins the award in an exhibit is not the tree (at least I sincerely hope not). Rather it is the bonsai display. If you?re participating in judged events where it is just the trees alone that are being judged, you are part of the problem. Don't do that; go display them elsewhere where artistry matters."
As much as I admire Andy, I disagree with him completely on this subject. He makes the creation of and the artistic merit inherent in a well-designed bonsai valueless. I see a display as the frame to display the bonsai in, like a great painting, a frame can greatly enhance or completely ruin a work of art. Certainly there is an art in the making and selection of a frame for a piece of art, but a frame on a wall without a painting is useless for all intents and purposes, it is simply a vessel awaiting fulfillment, not unlike an empty flower vase.
Andy states that it is the display that is judged and not the bonsai. Let's take a look at the 2006 World Bonsai winners ( http://www.bonsai-bci.com/WorldBonsai06 ... %20RESULTS
) how many of these are in a display? Certainly not the winner. We can also look at our own World View of gallery here at AoB and see world-class bonsai from many countries, not one submitted in a display, unless you count a stand as a display.
Bonsai should be judged in a bonsai show or in a bonsai contest as bonsai just as a painting is judged as a painting, the frame never comes into question when judging the talent of the painter, nor should the display (or lack of) be considered when judging a bonsai. I am assuming that Andy was talking about a full tradition display and not the, needless to mention, pot and stand, which should of-course always be considered.
Now if we are talking about a display contest, like the one we recently held here at AoB, then it is the display that is being judged and the bonsai at that time is just a component of the display, as Andy mentions above. In this instance the creator, the artist that assembled the display should be named and if asked or required, the original artist of the bonsai, scroll, accent, etc should also be named. In our display contest, we stated that the bonsai in the display need not be created by nor owned by the entrant. In the display contest, it was not the talent at creating bonsai that was being judged, it was the talent of arranging an artistic display that was being judged, two completely different talents.
There are those who attempt to marginalize and trivialize this discussion by saying that if we need to give credit to the artist that created a bonsai then we need also to give credit to the person that planted the seed of the tree, to the grower of the stock, or even to the nursery that sold the raw material. Again, looking to other arts for answers, we can see that the maker of the canvas, the manufactuer of the paints, the quarry from where the stone for the scupture was brought, or even the frame maker are never named. It all boils down to who had the talent to turn raw material into art.
The only group of people that naming the artist could possibly discourage would be the patrons, yet patrons of the art could still be and should be praised, without them, very few art forms would prosper. Praise and encouragement should be given to those who acquire and keep a collection of fine bonsai creations. I believe that these few should receive special mention and recognition apart and beyond the artists, just as in other forms of art. In example, if John Smith was a avid collector of world-class bonsai and wished to display his collection in a public venue, as many collectors of paintings do, John should be named as the patron. This showing might be proclaimed and listed as "bonsai 1 by master x, from the John Smith Collection" "bonsai 2 by master y, from the John Smith Collection" etc.
Patrons of the art of bonsai are often overlooked; this is something we all can help to improve. Maybe galleries featuring the collections of patrons, as well as shows set up to feature collections of patrons are long overdue. I personally will work toward showcasing some patrons in the near future. However, the creating artist should be named even in this venue.
In conclusion, based on the above information, it is easy to see why, in today?s existing bonsai shows, a bonsai not created by the person showing it should not be entered without fully disclaiming the original artist. I have shown that these are not bonsai contests but indeed talent contests in which the talent of the creator is being judged. Even in a non-judged competition, the original artist should always be given proper credit if for no other reason than showing respect to the person who had the talent to create the bonsai.
Oh yes, I almost forgot, there is one circumstance where a person could claim the work of art as their own, in which the tree could be shown, judged, or displayed without the original creators name attached. Let's think about Monet's "Water Lilies" once again, if I purchased this work of art and then proceeded to scrape the existing paint off of the canvas and used it to paint my own work on to, then I could certainly sign this piece and claim it as my own. Or if I simply repainted over the painting with my own art, then I could also claim the resulting work as my own.
In bonsai the same would be true where a person took an existing styled bonsai and reworked and restyled it beyond what the original artist created. We are not talking about bending a branch here, or shortening one there, we are talking about creating a new, unrecognizable creation from the material at hand. I'll leave the debate on why one would do this, to others.