Everybody at this point knows of the crimes of Rachel Dolezal and how they’ve helped numerous digital media sites make their numbers for June. But is she guilty of more basic crimes? Like, say, plagiarizing her artwork in ironic fashion? The internet sure thinks so! Let’s explore this question.
As media and onlookers pour over Dolezal’s statement of resignation, another controversy has come to light. Dolezal, a painter who studied fine arts at Howard University, is accused of plagiarizing British watercolor landscape artist J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, which is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Social media users have shared side-by-side comparisons of Dolezal’s The Shape Of Our Kind and Turner’s The Slave Ship.
We need a quick word here on The Slave Ship and on the practice of pastiche in art. Turner churned out literally tons of these chalky, wavy landscapes of boats melting into the sublime light of nature, or something like that. But The Slave Ship isn’t just another watercolor whatever-it-is: It’s one of the most famous maritime paintings of the Romantic era, ubiquitous on grandmas’ postcards and in undergrad art history classes. It has its own Wikipedia entry and Khan Academy video lesson. In other words, it’s so recognizable, it’s almost a sure bet that any Slave Ship cameo in a later work of art is pastiche, a loving or ironic nod to the original and its creator.
Witness now the bizarre, not-great copy of The Slave Ship that forms the center panel in Dolezal’s Triptych “with collaborative poetry by published writer, Dr. Josh Dolezal,” apparently Rachel’s brother and a poet of some note (as well as a source of some conspiratorial talk about Rachel’s recent outing as a white woman):
So if a formally educated artist makes a copy of an eminently recognizable painting by a famous master, it’s obviously (clumsy) pastiche and not plagiarism, right? I mean, nobody would be crazy enough to appropriate such familiar imagery and pass it off as one’s own, right?
Right. Except... well, this is Rachel Dolezal we’re dealing with here. She was brazen enough to perform her racial appropriations out in the open, where it’s plainly obvious to most of us that such a performance couldn’t stay concealed forever. Still, she tried. So... what else might she brazenly have tried to pass off?
Look again at her Triptych. We’re not given an artist’s statement that name-checks Turner or other influences. We don’t know that this was an MFA project, which would have had plenty of input and scrutiny from peers and instructors who’d be aware of the Turner work. We don’t know the poetry that went with Dolezal’s piece, or where, if anywhere, it was designed to be displayed (triptychs are usually associated with altars). We do know she has a problem with appropriation and concealing sourcing.
So it’s a fair question: Does she get the benefit of the doubt other artists might get? Or is her appropriation symptomatic of a problem most artists don’t have? Reasonable people will disagree!