Imitation not a limitation
The value of replication.
Today’s art world is oriented ever more towards the original, the spontaneous, and the new with a harsh disregard for anything that smacks of imitation. Yet Dr. Brett Foster, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, claims that imitation was not always considered a detriment to good art. In fact, for the poets and writers of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, imitation was a considered a crucial part of the creative process.
In his lecture as part of this year’s Christian Humanism series, Dr. Foster, an expert on the literature of these “Renaissance Humanists,” discussed the poetry of Henry Howard, Mary Sidney, and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. If you haven’t heard of any of these people, it’s OK; neither have I.
Yet Dr. Foster’s thesis was clear: for some of the greatest poets, theologians, and thinkers of Renaissance Europe saw imitation and reproduction as a necessity in creating works of art. It was not an unavoidable side-effect, but rather a helpful tool for artists to use in creating their own voice, a necessary step in the journey towards creating truly great art.
In fact, in some cases, imitative works were praised on the same level as so-called original pieces.
Consider Philip Sidney’s Psalter, a rewrite of the entire book of Psalms into a series of 150 rhyming, English poems. With help from his sister Mary, Philip restructured the Hebrew poems to fit English conventions. The resulting Psalms are quite different from the original text and from any singular English translation.
For example, Psalm 139, verse 15, which reads “My frame was not hidden from you / when I was made in the secret place, / when I was woven together in the depths of the earth,” in the NIV, became: “Thou how my back was beam-wise laid / And raft’ring of my ribs dost know: / Know’st every point / Of bone and joint, / How to this whole these parts did grow.”
The Sidney’s adopted construction and carpentry imagery, giving the verse and its depiction of God a much rougher quality. The poem is then entirely imitative yet still uniquely creative.
The Renaissance Humanists prized community and collaboration. They regarded imitation as partnership with, not plagiarism against, the great artists who had come before. They paid tribute to the great works of their predecessors, friends, and even mortal enemies while still exercising their own creative powers. They mixed pagan texts with Gospel teachings, maintaining the integrity of authors like Homer and Plato while still paying higher tribute to the Almighty.
Whether artists or academics, creators or consumers of culture, or just as human beings, we could learn from this acceptance of imitation. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question when we ask if work of art is “original” or not. If something is truly great, it is worth repeating in many different voices. That’s why there are four different Gospels. That is not to say that every work of art should celebrate, critique, talk about, or be about the exact same thing. But we should not deplore a work for repeating great structures, styles or ideas. We should celebrate the artist’s ability to choose the right works to imitate and their ability to pay homage while