When does "being inspired by..." become an original?

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Blog entry by iSawitFirst posted 08-06-2010 06:08 AM 1144 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I own a Honda S2000, a super-agile, sport convertible produced by Honda to celebrate the new millennium and their 50th anniversary. Its packed with race technology from the ‘90’s. One of the great things about this car is that there are tons of aftermarket products available so owners can modify the car to make it perform or look the way they want. In fact, it can be so highly modified that its no longer recognizable as a Honda or an S2000.

This leads me to the question, “At what point is a modified S2000 no longer an S2000?” And further, “When is an ‘inspired by…’ woodworking project truly an original?”

Having read the recent blog that addressed the issue of copying someone’s work and whether or not a subtle change was enough to call it an original left me feeling the issue was unresolved. The responses to the blog, to sum them up, were that if credit is given to the original woodworker, its OK to copy, make a slight change (put your thumb print on it as Renoir did on his sculptures to prove them his own and prevent forgeries) and call it your own. In my mind this is a french fry short of a happy moral.

In the course of learning technical skills there is great value in copying the masters. Aspiring artists have done so for thousands of years. But at what point does an aspiring woodworker become a master? Is it when he can perfectly replicate what the master has done? Or is there more to being a master?

Here is where the distinction is drawn between craftsman and artisan. Generally (I know, “generally” is dangerous territory) craftsmen are highly technical by nature. Beauty to them is often perfectly resolved form, symmetry in at least two if not all three axes. To some, the more “machine-made” their work product, the more perfect it is and the more “value” the work has. Its common for them to think that anything less than a highly polished finish is less than acceptable. Form strictly conforms to “accepted proportions and ratios.” Phi is the holy grail. Wherever the craftsman mindset is, the common ideal is perfect technical execution and flawlessly copying a particular style. Perfectly mated joints are the ultimate nervana and transform them to “artisans”, a higher state of being.

The artisan has a different mindset. Asymmetry and unresolved forms really get the juices flowing. The spiritual comes into play and takes the piece beyond the ordinary. It evokes new and exciting emotions or uncovers emotions that have long ago been quelled. It challenges our understanding of the cosmos. A piece of wood may best express its meaning and value by being left in its natural state. Or being made to look like something that expresses the opposite of its natural state (use your imagination). Constructing perfectly mated joinery destroys the karma and lowers them to the status of “Craftsman.”

While a faithful reproduction certainly has value and the maker is by most considered an “artist”, I submit that here skill is mislabeled as “art” and craftsmanship is mislabeled as “artisanship.” There is a distinction as noted above. But at what point does a craftsman become an artist by changing the original and thus obtain the right to call it his own?

HERE IS THE ANSWER WE’VE ALL BEEN SEARCHING FOR…Its when the copier changes the meaning or the spiritual value to the work.

Yes, the change must be of a spiritual nature. To substitute a skill for another skill, a half-blind dovetail for a dovetail or, God forbid, the little bears ears dovetails made by a machined template and router, adds nothing of value to the work (well, maybe some childish humor). However, to change something about the piece’s very nature, to change its message, to cause us to think about it differently, to stimulate our emotions, is to take the piece beyond where it was. Its intrinsic value has been changed (hopefully added to rather than diminished). At this point the maker can truly call it his or her own, for better or worse.

So, after all this, can anyone tell me when a Honda S2000 has been modified to the point that its no longer an S2000? Well, I’m biased. The original car is a pure, raw sports car and incorporates technology from a rich Formula One race heritage. Any change totally changes its essence. Thus, the slightest modification causes it to be an abomination. It becomes a Frankenstein…

to all except the one who modified it. ;-)

-- If you're over 100 years old there's an 80% chance you're a woman.

5 comments so far

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1092 posts in 3392 days

#1 posted 08-06-2010 03:06 PM

Tom, I’m with you. The XKE is, in my mind (and I worked on the engines of them, way back when), one of the classiest classic sporting automobiles, ever.

Now, as to the subject of this thread, despite the references to cars, I think the discussion of what constitutes true Art won’t be settled here or anywhere else.

Some of what passes for art in high places is disgusting trash to others in equally high places.

I have even heard of some who disdain Rembrandt’s work, although my mind boggles at the thought that he was the least bit less than a true Master.


-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View twissty's profile


26 posts in 2848 days

#2 posted 08-06-2010 03:38 PM

I think boat building or canoe building would be a good example here. I built an 18.5 ’ model called the “White Guide.
Its a 100+ year old design originally manufactured in canvas covered wood. It’s thought that E.B. White, the original designer may have copied an indian Birch bark canoe
Over the years builders have made this design in just about every material and method available to them at the time. Even though every one ever built shares the same basic lines, each one is still an original and unique in some way, but it’s still a White guide.

In automotive terms it’s easy to think of engines. You can build a complete small block chevy from scratch without a single chevrolet made component.

View SST's profile


790 posts in 4191 days

#3 posted 08-06-2010 08:24 PM

This is probably not one of those deep questions that a simple Shopsmith guy shouldn’t jump into, but I couldn’t resist.

I’ll start out with my 2 part hypothesis:

1) You can never make it your own, and (not “or”, AND)

2) It’s always your own

I say this because, at least in woodworking at this point in human history, there’s virtually nothing that hasn’t been made already, and therefore, whoever made it first “owns” it by virtue of that alone. If you look at it and base a project on it, no matter how loosely, it’s always based on the original which will never be yours. Therefore, (part 1, above) you can never make it truly your own.

However…now on to part 2

If you build something, whether an original (at least to you, but probably not to all woodworking history) or based on some other known item, it’s ALWAYS your own. It is because it’s a product of not just your hands but of your feelings , sweat, and emotions. Now, remember that I’m not speaking here of commercial pieces & copyrights, etc,( if you’re dealing with that, you’d best have a lawyer answer the question) but of you at a personal level. Simply put, if you toiled over it and are proud of the result, it’s yours. No one can take it from you.

By the way, I was just re-reading one of James Krenov’s books, (I think, “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” but It’s not in front of me now to be sure) and his discussion on craftsmen, artisans, feelings ,etc is worth another look at that book. Anyway, keep your blades sharp & your reflexes sharper. -SST

-- Accuracy is not in your power tool, it's in you

View Div's profile


1653 posts in 2936 days

#4 posted 08-06-2010 08:45 PM

Artisan, artificer or artist? The meaning of words? Look them up in Oxford. Great post, I will have to come back to read this properly, gotta run now!

-- Div @ the bottom end of Africa. "A woodworker's sharpest tool should be his mind."

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18268 posts in 3672 days

#5 posted 08-07-2010 07:50 AM

With 7 billion people on earth and another 7 to 14 billion preceeding us, it is hard to believe that anything can be original and unthought of before:-)) Even though the current maker might not know it or know of or where to find the previous original.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

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