Blurred Lines between Inspiration and Infringement

It’s a bad day for artistic creativity and expression.

A jury has found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke guilty of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” in their song “Blurred Lines.” I find this not only appalling, but frightening as well. Copyright is important, let’s not have any confusion about that, but what I would argue is even more important is creativity.

An artwork of any medium (musical, lyrical, visual, written, etc) is utterly interdependent on other artwork. If we take even the briefest of looks at history, it doesn’t take long to figure out that artistic movements occur in reaction to each other. One poetic movement grows out of a previous one, another poetic movement arises as a response to and a reaction against that previous one. The same is true for music and sculpture and visual art.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say there is some similarity between these two songs; whether you want to say that similarity is a bass line, the beat, a mood/tone, whatever, is up to you. Is “Blurred Lines” so similar to “Got to Give it Up” that it should be accused of plagiarism rather than simply artistic inspiration? And it’s not about the money that Williams and Thicke will have to pay up for this supposed infringement; it’s about the bloody principle of the thing. What is the line between inspiration and infringement? Or between sharing and stealing creativity? Of course sometimes people outright steal creative works from other people, and that is beyond terrible. But I think what happens far more– and what should be allowed to continue to happen– is that artists are inspired by other artists. They “take something [they] love and build on it.” That quote is from a TED Radio Hour excerpt, which you can listen to here:

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/322721353/why-would-more-than-500-artists-sample-the-same-song 

This is the short version of the TED Radio Hour with Mark Ronson, on “What is Original?” and is pretty much all the proof you need. To put it briefly, Ronson explains how Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” is a foundational song, from which a number of artists took inspiration, including: Beastie Boys, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, Kanye West, and plenty of others. In other words, to quote Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Velazquez’s Las Meninas

And a Picasso version of Las Meninas, inspired by Velazquez’s work

There are no original ideas. I feel like that’s a pretty well-established fact. There are unique spins, new combinations, etc, but no one’s going to reinvent the wheel. The wheel exists, and we just put our own spins on it (see what I did there?). So when you have a musician like Taylor Swift try to copyright some phrases from her lyrics including “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989,” we run into a real problem.

Manet’s Olympia….

…. Inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino

There are many great things about the primacy of the individual in our society. This court finding, however, is an example of its dark side. We are so concerned with our individual thoughts and ideas and work that first off, we fail to acknowledge how dependent we are on the artists and thinkers who came before us, and how we couldn’t have come up with any of the thoughts and creative works that we have without those who paved the way, and they could not have come up with anything without the work of those generations before them, and so on and on. And secondly, we fail to share in the community of creativity where others can inspire us, and where we can inspire others to pass on this deeply human drive and desire to create.

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Of Dying Gauls and Creativity

Last weekend, I went to Washington, D.C., to view a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Art: The Dying Gaul, a sculpture on loan from Italy. It is a marble sculpture from the 1st or 2nd century of a warrior who has been fatally wounded and is experiencing his last moments of life. The sculpture has only been out of Italy once before since its creation some two thousand years ago, and that was when Napoleon borrowed it for a bit. In D.C., it was displayed in the rotunda of the National Gallery, right behind the Mercury fountain and between two massive columns– fitting for a Roman sculpture, I think. When I went, the fountain was surrounded by sculpted azaleas, like pastel bonsais, right behind which rested The Dying Gaul.

Azaleas in the Rotunda

Azaleas in the Rotunda

This post will get to a point soon– but I have to describe my awe at this sculpture before any of the rest of this will make sense. The sculpture is actually believed to be a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original even older than itself. The Roman copy was somehow lost or buried centuries ago, and was only rediscovered in an excavation sometime around the 1600s. So, knowing all that, here it is:

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul

As far as the actual sculpture goes, I have very little to say. I think it speaks for itself (in volumes) regarding nobility, bravery, war, loss, resignation, and defiance– so I won’t presume to speak for it. What I do want to talk about is the notion of originality and art.

image

What makes something art? What constitutes an original idea? People always say “there is no such thing as an original idea,” like it’s a terrible thing, like every idea in the world is just a recycled version of something older, that nothing is ever new and genuine– like this is a bad shameful thing due to people lacking creativity. And maybe there is “nothing new under the sun”; things do seem to come in cycles, repeating history and stories in seemingly endless ways. There are, however, two ways I disagree with that. One, if it is impossible to create anything new, that certainly does not negate the value or goodness or art which is created. Two, the idea that there are no more original ideas implies that there was (once upon a time) an original Idea from which all others sprung.

It’s about to get real serious.

So, first off, we have The Dying Gaul. This incredible sculpture– far too beautiful and exquisitely painful even to attempt to put into words– is a copy. Not an original. A copy. Is every copy of an ‘original’ so beautiful? Certainly not, but The Dying Gaul in its turn inspired countless artists who painted or sculpted figures in similar positions because they found the lines– not to mention the emotions– of the Roman sculpture so inspiring. Just because something has been done before, just because a love story has happened at some point in the past, just because a tale of bravery in battle has been told– none of this means that we should stop telling stories, stop creating art, because someone somewhere at some time has done something similar. A new war story does not detract from an old one. A new sculpture does not negate the value of an older one. Can you ever have too many tales of goodness, truth, courage, resilience, redemption? Maybe plot points are similar (like myths of so many cultures, not to mention other stories told and written down over the centuries). Maybe lines of sculptures and paintings are inspired by others. Maybe one dance step is remarkably like another, one swell of music reminds you of another string of notes.

However, that doesn’t mean none of them are “originals.” They were inspired by each other– a reaction against, a move in support of, or something else. Isn’t that what links us together as humans? Isn’t that why art so often transcends nationality, race, class, age, time period? It speaks to something deeper, some thing that makes us human, that makes us interdependent as I think we were always meant to be. Which leads me to point #2.

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So let’s say there are no “original ideas” anymore. If that’s the case, there still was once an original Idea, which all subsequent ideas are imitations or copies of, inspired by in some way. Which leads me back to the question: why do so many myths share so much? Because I believe there is an original Truth, from which all other truths derive. There is good and there is evil, and I believe the battle between them is what has driven the world for longer than we can imagine.

Told you it was getting real serious.

So if we say there are no original ideas but only copies of something from the long long ago, aren’t we all original individuals? I know there are those who would disagree, but I believe there has never been– in the history of the universe (that’s right, I said it)– an individual exactly like you (or me). We are each uniquely made, uniquely gifted, and I think that this uniqueness– this originality– is what makes our work, our art, our creations, our stories, our selves, original. Maybe the idea is “recycled” but what we bring to it as individuals is not; our genuine selves (see my last post for more on that) are what make what we do, new.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

-John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions