The question of originality and its importance in our respect for and acclaim of individuals can be a considerably dicey matter. This morning, as I was driving to work, the radio station I was listening to had an intriguing discussion of rampant and flagrant cases of plagiarism among rock & roll musicians. In particular, the band Led Zeppelin (widely viewed as one of the greatest bands of rock & roll history) was shown to have regularly stolen songs recorded about two years before their recordings from such bands as Moby Grape and Spirit (whose song “Taurus” was the source of the riff to “Stairway to Heaven”). For reasons unknown, Led Zeppelin was never sued for their plagiarism, and despite being known for their thieving tendencies, as most bands were apparently honored to have their riffs used by Led Zeppelin even though they were not ever granted songwriting royalties for their originality. Other artists, like George Harrison, were successfully sued for their acts of plagiarism, though, even if it did not hurt his critical or popular acclaim as an artist.
There are some people who are greatly honored for their craft, even if they are not known for particular creativity or originality. For those who are known as being original and creative, though, like the artist Beck, the fact that their stylistic creativity was in some ways a reflection of previously created though unavailable work (in that case, the work of the little-known Forest For The Trees project) in some ways shows that respect for creativity must be muted a wider understanding of existing influences that may not be generally known to the public. If one bases a career or a reputation on being forward-thinking and avant garde, the question of influence becomes very important. For those who have no such ambitions, and whose creativity is far more modest and perhaps even “traditionalist” in scope, knowing one’s influences does not in any way detract from our appreciation of their art.
Examples of this are legion, but a few can suffice for their many cousins. Thomas Jefferson’s resounding language in the Declaration of Independence was not an immensely creative act, in the sense that the language of that declaration was particularly new and shocking. Indeed, similar documents from independent and prior sources to the declaration of independence going back at least a couple of years before 1776 included many of the striking phrases and worldview that Jefferson drew upon in drafting the Declaration of Independence. It is not the originality of Jefferson’s sentiments, which he (like most men) were somewhat inconsistent in applying, that give that document its power, but rather the fact that the declaration spoke (and speaks) for our nation as a whole, and because the situation of its writing was momentous in a way that the declaration of similarly freedom-minded slaveowners of, say, rural Georgia in 1774 was not momentous, even if the sentiments (and the tensions between those sentiments and the behavior of the freedom-loving slaveowners themselves) were similar.
On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr. is considered to be a particularly original thinker as far as the civil rights movement is concerned, whether one looks at his doctoral thesis, his “I Have A Dream” speech, or his “Letters From A Birmingham Jail.” Unfortunately, it turns out that many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s political philosophy was purloined from other much less famous figures, showing that even though the sentiments expressed for freedom and justice for all are certainly noble, that the originality of those sentiments is lacking, which correspondingly means our esteem of the man must be more modest and recognize the acts of theft that were involved in building up the reputation of someone unjustly . Again, it does not invalidate the justice of his claims, but it shows that as an original mind, MLK was simply not up to par, and so whatever credit we give him must be due to the nobility of his sentiments and causes and not to the originality of his expression of them.
We would all be better off seeking to hone our crafts as well as possible and not seek the pretension of being original given the large number of inspirations that exist. If the thoughts and expressions, if the art and creation we come up with is in fact daring and original, it is better for that originality and skill to be recognized by others rather than to be claimed for ourselves and found to be merely borrowed feathers that do not belong to ourselves. It is better to make modest claims and be found to have gone beyond them rather than to claim and to receive credit and praise that we do not deserve, lest we and our partisans be ashamed later on. If we are responsible and decent people, the nobility of our sentiments and the skill of our efforts will be honor enough, however creative or original we may be or not.