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Artistic Borrowing and the Anxiety of Influence

by Jillian Brinberg

Plagiarism is bad as we have all heard since early childhood. Yet the fact of the matter remains that moral boundaries remain blurred in the arts world when it comes to deciding what the lines are between influence, allusion, borrowing and outright plagiarism. Artists tend to create new work based on others’ ideas, or recreate existing pieces in new ways, and rarely does anyone cry foul.

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the A.R.T. production of Porgy and Bess. (Photo: Michael J. Lutch, courtesy of media site for Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess)

A significant controversy has arisen recently over the musical revival of “Porgy and Bess.” Originally a tragic Gershwin opera, director Diane Paulus has turned the show into a commercialized Broadway production, complete with new story lines and upbeat melodies. The production is so far removed from its namesake that famed composer Stephen Sondheim said that rather than calling it “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” they should “advertise it honestly as ‘Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.’ And to hell with the real one.”

Ironically enough, Sondheim was the lyricist for the popular “West Side Story,” a modern day version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet.” Thus the essential question is: Why is “West Side Story” celebrated and the “Porgy and Bess” revival criticized? Each play contains, in essence, the same basic elements as its predecessor – but one has a new title and new characters, and one still clings to the markers of the original.  To put it differently, if one can make Romeo into the member of a New York gang who dances and sings, perhaps Paulus can transform Porgy (and Bess) into whatever she wants while keeping their names intact.

Great art is the result of inspiration – that much is clear – and inspiration may include borrowing and adaptation. In the world of literature, fan fiction is a common and socially acceptable form of artistic expression. Musicians sample music and perform cover songs, dramaturges adapt plays, and choreographers restage dances. However, it is difficult to strike a balance concerning how much an artist can adapt a work but stay true to the original, and it is similarly difficult to know when an adaptation becomes a fundamentally new work. Is the new “Porgy and Bess,” which bears little resemblance to its parent, staying true enough to the original to advertise itself as such? Is “West Side Story”, which virtually parallels Shakespeare’s work in all ways, too ‘borrowed’ to be touted as original? As a consumer of the artistic experience, we must always consider whether an artist has crossed that apparently undefined line and created a work that so closely parallels another that is cannot be considered original.

Official poster for the film version of West Side Story

The fact is that society often welcomes artistic borrowing with open arms. Just consider the immense success of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” or the films “Across the Universe” and “Moulin Rouge.” The general public may not always be receptive to original works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but they clamor for musicals and gore. Remolding a classic to fit the interests of society may seem like a betrayal of the original, but at the same time it allows for greater audience exposure. People who otherwise may have never experienced these classic tales are now well versed in their lessons.  So if artistic borrowing can expose the arts to a wider audience – whether it is by virtue of creating a new work with elements of another, or by changing an existing work – then in some very fundamental way it is furthering art.

With that being said, the ethics of such practices still remain blurred to a frustrating extent. Expired copyrights or owning the rights to a play make artistic borrowing in the theatrical world legally acceptable. So in theory, there should be no moral quandary. But my academic and artistic integrity shouts otherwise. Artists who use the premise of another in their work should be held accountable for accurate recognition of their sources. Just as Sondheim implies, naming a heavily recreated work after the original is misleading to the audience and disrespectful to the original artist who may not have agreed to put his name on a drastic remodeling.

This can be reconciled by ensuring that recreated works pay homage to the original creator, while also making it clear that the work is an adaptation. Were the directors to promote their musical as “Diane Paulus’s revival of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” it is likely that there would have been less of a controversy surrounding it. In short, by ensuring that the proper people receive credit and that audiences are not misled, society can continue to reap the benefits of artistic borrowing and mitigate, at least to some extent, the accompanying ethical dilemma.

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/stephen-sondheim-takes-issue-with-plan-for-revamped-porgy-and-bess/

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