Artistic License

Teacher talking to students in theater class
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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 when it was written, but the director has an artistic vision and must be indulged.

Music sampling is a relatively new discipline, in which bits and pieces of other works are taken and compiled into a new piece. Samplers take (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."

Deliberate Use of Artistic License

Artists are notorious for insisting on creating what they see in their own heads, and not necessarily what anyone else sees. Occasionally, as with Dadaism, artistic license is applied with a heavy hand, and the viewer is expected to keep up.

The Abstract Expressionist movement, Cubism, and Surrealism are also good examples of this. While we are aware that humans don't have both eyes on the same side of their heads, realism isn't the point in this context.

The painter John Trumbull created a famous scene entitled The Declaration of Independence, in which all the 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.

Lack of Information

Artists often haven't the time, resources or inclination to faithfully reproduce historic persons or events in exhaustive detail.

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 and so on.

If you know Leonardo, you also know he did not travel to Jerusalem and spend years researching historical detail, but that does not necessarily detract from the painting.

Unintentional Use of Artistic License

An artist might have attempted to portray things he'd never actually seen, based on someone else's description. Before the use of cameras, a person in England trying to draw an elephant might have greatly misinterpreted verbal accounts. This hypothetical artist may not have been trying to be funny or falsely represent a subject. He just didn't know any better.

Everyone sees things differently, artists included. Some artists are better than others at translating what they see onto paper. Between the initial mental image, the artist's skill, and the subjective gaze of the viewer, it's not hard to amass actual or perceived artistic license.