On May 6th I went to the final concert for the 2011-2012 season of Voices of Change in Dallas. The program was preceded by a lecture by the guest composer Claude Baker and then selections of his were performed by professional musicians.
Baker described his influences and his training. He said that his work is often informed by the music of earlier composers but the references are not always discernible to listeners. He hopes that his work stands on its own but that knowing his influences should add layers of meaning to its appreciation.
During the intermission I overheard two members of the audience talking. One of them commented that he guessed Baker had been confessing that he just copied other composers. Had this guy listened to the music?
In all of the arts today many artists create responses to earlier work but in times past it wasn’t considered cheating to redo subject matter or compositions of predecessors. Many artists painted near copies of the work that came before. As an example, look at all these different versions of Judith and Holofernes from the Baroque Period.
Judith and Holofernes Series
All these pieces use similar techniques and are on canvas using oil paints. There are differences in style and composition of course.
But contemporary artists frequently reference earlier works and knowledgeable viewers will see the allusions. Hung Liu, an American painter who emigrated as a young woman from Communist China combines elements of her birth culture with a very western and contemporary sensibility. Her paintings begin with historical photographs of Chinese subjects that were usually taken by foreigners. In her artist’s statement she says:
As a painter, I am interested in subjecting the documentary authority of historical photographs to the more reflective process of painting; I want to both preserve and destroy the image. Much of the meaning of my painting comes from the way the washes and drips dissolve the photo-based images, opening them to a slower kind of looking, suggesting perhaps the cultural and personal narratives fixed in the photographic instant.
Are these copies? Of course. Does that matter? Not to me. Liu’s paintings can be approached from many levels because she is revisiting traditional imagery using her own unique style. Who she is and what she is painting add a lot to the reading of the works. What do you think?