What Is Artistic License?

Teacher talking to students in theater class
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(Note: Due to this site's topic, it is assumed you want to know about the traditional meaning of "artistic license" and aren't tinkering with open source software.)

What is artistic license?

Simply put, artistic license means an artist is accorded leeway in his or her interpretation of something and is not held strictly accountable for accuracy.

For example, the director of your local theatre group might decide it's high time Shakespeare's Hamlet was staged with the entire cast walking on stilts. Obviously, this was not how they did things back at the old Globe, but the director has been seized with an artistic vision and must be indulged.

A poet is granted artistic license to rhyme something with the word "orange," even though "orange" has no rhyming word in English.

Music sampling is a relatively new discipline, in which bits and pieces of other works are taken and compiled into a new piece. The sampler has taken (sometimes wild) artistic license with other musicians' works. In many cases, the sampling community will rate new pieces, and one of the judging criteria is entitled "Artistic License."

Writers of fiction are allowed to take all sorts of liberties with fact, in the interest of crafting a good story. It should go without saying that "fiction" is the operative word here.

Yes, but what of visual art?

Well, visual art is the Big Kahuna of artistic license! As a tool, artistic license is indispensable, and visual artists employ it for a number of reasons.

Deliberate use, because a style demands it.

Refer to the entire Abstract Expressionist movement for proof of this. The same goes for Cubism or Surrealism. We all know that humans don't have both eyes on the same side of their heads, and human heads aren't apples. Realism isn't the point here.

Deliberate use, with an attitude.

Artists are notorious for insisting on painting/drawing/sculpting what they see in their own heads, and not necessarily giving a fig what anyone else sees. Occasionally, as with Dada or some of the more memorable works of the YBA's (Young British Artists), artistic license is applied with a heavy hand, and the viewer is expected to keep up.

Deliberate use, because it makes for a better work.

There are thousands of examples of this, but here is just one: The painter John Trumbull created a famous scene entitled The Declaration of Independence, in which all of that document's authors, and all but 15 of its signers, are shown present in the same room at the same time. Such an occasion never actually occurred. However, by combining a series of meetings, Trumbull painted a composition full of historic likenesses, engaged in an important historic act, that was meant to evoke emotion and patriotism in U.S. citizens.

Deliberate use, due to lack of information.

This is quite common, as well. Artists often haven't the time, resources or inclination to faithfully reproduce historic persons or events in exhaustive detail.

To give one specific example, Leonardo's mural of the Last Supper has come under close scrutiny of late. Historical and Biblical purists have pointed out that he got the table wrong. The architecture is wrong. The drinking vessels and tableware are wrong. Those who are supping are sitting upright, which is wrong. They all have the wrong skin tone, features, and dress. The scenery in the background is not Middle Eastern. (The list continues, but you get the idea.)

If you know Leonardo, you also know he did not travel to Jerusalem and spend years researching historical detail. Does that, or his liberal use of artistic license detract from this being a superb painting? My vote is no.

Unintentional use, due to being mistaken.

Quite often, this is clearly evident in old engravings. An artist might have attempted to portray things he'd never actually seen, based on someone else's description. A person in merry olde England, trying to draw an elephant or a Chinese man, might have misinterpreted verbal accounts to a laughable degree. This hypothetical artist wasn't trying to be funny or falsely represent a subject. He just didn't know any better.

And, finally, unintentional use because artistic license just *is.*

Everyone sees differently, artists included. Some artists are better than others at getting that which their mind's-eye is viewing onto a medium for others to regard. Between the initial mental image, the artist's skill (or lack thereof) and the subjective gaze of the viewer, it's not hard to amass quite a load of actual or perceived artistic license.

    In sum, artistic license is:

    • A tool.
    • Entirely at the artist's discretion.
    • To be tolerated by the viewer.
    • Neither "good" nor "bad."
    • Useful for filling in gaps, whether they be compositional or historical.
    • Used consciously, unconsciously, or both simultaneously.
    • There for the taking, and not subject to yearly renewal, inspection, fees or a bad snapshot on an ID card.