Letters to a Kingdom Artist

Of Craftsmen and Copycats: Christians, Art and Originality

By June 5, 2020 No Comments

You have probably heard this phrase in church circles before: ‘there is no copyright in kingdom’. There is sincere intention behind this ideal. Sharing is paramount for communal survival. Christian artistes cover songs by their contemporaries all the time to show solidarity and share the heart of worship with as many as possible. Preachers borrow perspectives and quotes they have picked up from colleagues and conferences in order to benefit the body. There is nothing wrong with learning something and teaching it. There is nothing wrong with receiving inspiration. Nobody has a monopoly on the Word of God. However, wholesale plagiarism is something any artiste, including those representing the Kingdom of God should separate themselves from as far as possible. 

What is plagiarism? Fundamentally, especially in academic circles, plagiarism can be understood as the theft of others’ originally generated ideas, thoughts, words, art, or products. This act is compounded by the decision to present the stolen items as one’s own. According to the revered MLA handbook, 7th edition, plagiarism is derived from a word that means literally to kidnap (52). One may ask, what does that have to do with me? Is there any biblical ground to suggest that I should not plagiarize? Well apart from implicit moral integrity, Exodus 20: 15 gives us a clear instruction amidst the ten commandments that, “you must not steal” (NLT). 

What plagiarism is not… Before you begin to panic about everything you may have inadvertently stolen, let me make it clear that introducing common knowledge to discourse (and adages) does not constitute plagiarism – pointing out that Donald Trump is the current president of the United States without citing a governmental resource should not put you in trouble. Similarly, in Christian circles, stating the ordinary from the pulpit will not subject you to penalty and most Christians are quick to provide scriptural bases or reference to commentaries for their usage.

In an age of ‘Sailor Moon redraws’, it may be challenging to determine what is theft, particularly when information is so freely available. The fact of the matter is that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1.9). Many of us will come up with thoughts, ideas, conclusions, and concepts that have been seen before. Actually, a lot of us grab hold of our art by first imitating what ‘good’ art looks like. The prolific Oscar Wilde once stated that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery mediocrity can pay to greatness”. Until one masters a craft or comes into his own voice, he is likely to do some degree of copying. We may learn skills from Picasso or van Gogh before we feel confident to sell our first painting or learn to play the symphonies of Beethoven or Bach before we begin to compose our own music.

Teachability is necessary for growth. There are basic rules and standards of every artform that serious subscribers should find familiar. The philosopher Plato emphasizes the use of what is known in literary criticism as ‘mimesis’ – i.e. great art will imitate what is illustrated in real life, which also involves a measure of allowed copying. This process goes on with the intention of cultivating one’s distinct style and form and should not be used to capitalize on someone else’s gift for tangible profit. Following rules does not constitute plagiarism. Adhering to a genre does not constitute plagiarism. The use of allusion or axiom does not constitute plagiarism. 

What then is our responsibility? Let me provide some illustrations that may help us better understand how we can effectively navigate this landscape. If, as a visual artist, you have drawn an interpretation of the crucifixion, you have not plagiarized. But do not copy Mary’s exact, original painting and subsequently sell it as your own. Respect her as an artist. If you do a cover of a well-known worship song, you have not plagiarized especially if previously granted permission, pronouncing your lack of rights where necessary, refusing to distribute, negotiating fair use, pointing to the original artiste or using music within the public domain. Things can become complicated so it’s always best to find out what the best practice is for what you desire to do.

Where the indictment comes is when those called by the name of Christ are pegged as lifting word-for-word text or art or music initially created by their brothers and sisters and passing it off as their own. It is important that as the Body, we desire to model exemplary living. One of the ways in which we can do that is by preserving credibility by trying to be as responsible in our output as possible. There are some who claim that if God is glorified, it does not matter where ideas and art come from. While there is a place for humble anonymity, we must as Kingdom artistes always be aware that art is how many artistes earn and live. Seek to support fellow artistes not only by purchases and advertising but also by crediting them. 

This is not a license to place undue pressure and expectation on yourself to avoid the influence of others. There will always be some measure of similarity in what you reproduce and what your peers reproduce. It is only a call to awareness, care, respect and responsibility. It may help if instead of seeking to equal our contemporaries by replicating, we use their output as inspiration. Use it as inspiration to do our best with our own giftings and apply them in our own God-given way. Perhaps many of us commit plagiarism because we doubt the significance of our individual talents and so we choose to hide behind the applauded, validated work of others. There is no need for that. Criticism may come but it is worth it for the sake of those who need what you will uniquely give. I believe we will reach optimal enlightenment in our art when we discover our distinct places as craftsmen and begin to unreel the indigenous ability instilled in us by the Original Artist.  




About the Writer: Jacinth Howard is a final year Ph.D. candidate in Literature. She has produced both critical and creative work in various publications and writes in all three literary genres. She lives in Barbados with her husband and son. A teacher by profession, she loves Jesus, good food and animation. You can read more of her content at http://thelightinthecracks.com

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