There was a heated debate in the days of antiquity–among Aristotle and Plato in particular–in which the fundamental motive behind the creation of artistic works (visual, literary, musical, etc.) was contested as an extension of a mimetic practice (imitation). Here is a rather watered-down and cautionary version of the debate–
Plato’s position, stated in The Republic:
- All art is imitation, and that’s not a good thing. Here’s why: imitation removes the reality and truth of an existing subject, poets and artists represent the gods in inappropriate ways, imitation can decieve human emotion and scew our perception of life–ie tragedy plays
Aristole’s position, stated in Poetics:
- All art is imitation, and that’s not a bad thing. Here’s why: imitation is a natural instinct developed in childhood, imitation is how we learn, tragedy (plays) can be educational and provide moral insight and spark emotional growth
Despite their opposing views, both arguments have confirmed that art is rooted in imitation, a concept that I would like to explore further within the framework of 21st century transnational digital music culture. Let’s take a look at digital sampling, for example.
Theoretical Debate and ‘Copy and Paste’
Digital music sampling has been described as taking a portion or section of a sound recording and reusing it to create a new music composition. This ‘copy and paste’ production has defined the ways in which our generation consumes and generates meaning. That is not to say that this is a new phenomemon; as evidenced by Aristole and Plato’s theoretical debate, all art is rooted in the process of imitation, therefore, logically it follows that it is humanly impossible to create an ‘original’ production. With that in mind, I’d like to look at what is currently happening with digital music sampling as a means for exploring an age-old theoretical debate within a practical and contemporary context.
Copy-Cat Phenomenon in Digital Remix Culture
While the theoretical debate remains intact, the tools for generating art have evolved, making the mimetic process more complex and broader in scope. What exactly does this imply? With the advent of the internet, the pursuit of artistic imitation evolved into an instantenous process and the age-old theoretical conception of ‘copy and paste’ was made manifest onto digitized screens around the globe. This ‘copy-cat phenomenon’ has evolved in the last few decades, crossing/bending/redefining ‘traditional’ media and genres, and establishing digital music sampling as the pillar of a generation defined by all things instant, transnational, and digital.
At some point in your digital life-span you have more than likely ‘copied-and-pasted’ a sentence, a hyperlink, an image or music file from one location or document to another. This process of transfering information from one source to create a new one is fundamental to the way in which we visualize, internalize, and generate meaning and I am arguging that digital music sampling has made tangible and brought an age-old theoretical debate to a cross-generational and transnational audience.
Take for example, this music sample, Bibo No Aozora by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a renowned classical/new-age music producer from Japan.
Now, listen to this music clip, Can’t be Friends by Trey Songz, award winning African-American rapper and R&B singer
Did you notice any similarity between the two music clips? One could argue, how is that students and professionals can be penalized for ‘copying-and-pasting’ the words and ideas of others on the grounds of plagarism and copyright legislation, and internationally known music artists can get away with and establish profitable careers that are rooted in the same ‘copycat’ logic? If Trey Songz/Kanye West/Jay-Z/[fill-in-the-blank] can do it, why can’t I?
The intricate details of music licensing and international copyright legislation are for another debate. My focus here is in the evolution of mimetic artistic production and how digital music sampling and remixing has altered the ways in which we manipulate and transform meaning [from classical music production to R&B break-up song]; this process brings up two important debates that mirror that of Aristotle and Plato: many have argued (following Aristole’s philosophy) that Kanye West and his contemporaries reflect an evolved mimetic process grounded in a refined skill for ‘mixing,’ ‘chopping,’ ‘screwing’ lyrics, tempos and beats, while the other camp (following Plato’s logic) pose that folks like West lack creativity and ingenuity, and that the process of music sampling is far removed from ‘true music’. Regardless of the debate, digital music sampling embodies the genuis of our generation–a coming to terms with the impossible feat of producing original artistic content, which has resulted in an unshamedly popular and transnational copycat phenomenon in which music production has become a controversial quest for reinterpreting meaning and reconfiguring notions of creativity.
Remixing-the Remix: Recycling and Re-Interpreting Messages
The hyper-music sampling of performer ‘GirlTalk’ is a symptom of our generation’s realization that original content cannot be produced, and in creating musical compositions that are solely comprised of music samples he has not only created a justifiable counter-narrative to traditional music production and originality, his crontroversial career has also transformed the performer into the personification of this ideology. The legal indictments that Girltalk has acquired due to copyright infrigement has deemed it impossible to reap profit for his work, which raises another debate (who profits from digital sampling and who doesn’t-Girltalk v. Kanye West).
So, I am going leave this subject open to your interpretation– are Plato and Aristotle’s points relevant to today’s current debate on the ethics of digital music sampling? If so, which camp do you follow?