Paul Cezanne rarely discussed his painting on the public platform but in a rare interview conducted for a Parisian newspaper he admitted to a form of plagiarism. “ I aspire to be like my predecessors,” he confessed, “building on their legacy.” He was speaking of his artistic hero and painterly father, the French classical painter, Nicholas Poussin.
Cezanne recognised the importance of legacy in his own artistic practice, drawing inspiration from those who had gone before him and, in some ways, imitating their creative gifting.
In a previous blog entry I encouraged fellow Christians in the arts to move beyond mere mimicry in their art: to strive for authenticity, excellence and innovation for the glory our God; to move beyond air guitar. Thanks to Rechord who responded with the comment, "Some art/design/music 'needs' to ape in order to respect its audience and/or its commissioners, and therefore fulfil its purpose in a loving way." I agree and it’s important we hold the biblical mandate for cultural innovation with that of godly imitation. How do we learn from those God has generously gifted with creativity without plagiarising or turning our artistic heroes into idols?
Imitation is a thoroughly biblical value when approached in a godly manner. In fact, it’s part of our creation mandate. In Genesis 2 we read that man is made in the image of God and, as such, is embossed with the blueprint impression of God: Human beings are an imitation of the creator God. Imitation is a biblical value even Paul recognises in his letters encouraging the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 4:16) and the Thessalonians to become imitators of the Lord (1 Thess 1:6)
In the creative arts, how do we imitate in a way that brings glory to God? Are there times when it is appropriate to mimic? How do we know what to imitate? Perhaps we can gleam some help from Paul’s famous words to the Philippians 4:8, substituting “think about” for “imitate”,
‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
One of the most appropriated phrases in Baroque music has to be that of ‘Air on a G string’ by J.S. Bach. British band Procul Harem wrote ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ with Keith Reid’s curious lyrics surfing over the top of Bach’s haunting melody, “We skipped the light fandango / skipped cartwheels ‘cross the floor / I was feeling kinda sea sick / but the crowd cried out for more.” (What on earthy does that mean?!) Anime composer, Shiro Sagisu, re-worked the piece for the soundtrack of the Japanese animation film, Evangeleon. It appears in the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine, David Fincher’s Se7en, Halloween, The Spy Who Loved me and even THAT advert for Hamlet cigars.
What happen to this piece of music with each consecutive imitation? Is Bach’s original somehow tarnished by the appropriation or are the imitators building his work? Do they plagiarise or imitate, copy or pay tribute?
There are times when it is appropriate to appropriate. There are times when we ape.
As image bearers of God we should be aping Christ all the time. As a painter I am indebted to artistic giants who have gone before me on whose shoulders I aspire to climb, not for the sake of mere mimicry but to learn from their creative gifting so that I might be able to better my own creative efforts for the glory of God.