Print Magazine interviews Milton Glaser to discuss Shepard Fairey and the topic of appropriation and plagiarism. If you're not familiar, Fairey is the graffiti artist responsible for such iconic imagery as the ubiquitous Andre OBEY tag and the Obama Hope image. Glaser had this to say, on the topic of copying other artists' work:
The process of looking back at the past is very accepted in our business—the difference is when you take something without adding anything to the conversation. ... I think unless you’re modifying it and making it your own, you’re on very tenuous ground.
He makes the finer point that copying ideas and appropriating imagery is not patently wrong. To the contrary, it is the basis for a lot of work that is celebrated. The difference comes in appropriating and making one's own. He points out the danger the idea of copying poses to future designers and artists.
It’s a dangerous example for students, if they see that appropriating people’s work is the path to success. Simply reproducing the work of others robs you of your imagination and form-making abilities. You’re not developing the muscularity you need to invent your own ideas. ... But it’s important for students to understand that any idea can be exploited, but not simply reproduced.
I, for one, don't sit in judgement of Shepard Fairey's work because I find the idea of what he does, the mass underground distribution of iconic imagery in the form of an ilegal activity for spreading one's art, to be interesting for that controversial aspect alone. Is it art or is it vandalism? Is it stealing or is it some sort of free speech that should be protected? But, I digress on that issue, only to share what I think is provocative. Getting back to Glaser's point, if in the realm of design we tend to be gray on the issue of copying ideas or actual form without making a thing our own, what do we gain from that experience? Not very much, for not very long.
You might also want to check out the interview with Shepard Fairey on the Fresh Air show at NPR.