Art is Thievery – MLK Jr. Day

“I think we are all thieves a little bit, in a healthy way.” Craig Caruso of Playback Performance

I have been chewing on that quote since Craig told me that a couple weeks ago and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day today, I wanted to touch on how I see this lived out in the words of Dr. King. Dr. King’s last speech, the one he gave the night before he was murdered, was the famous, prophetic even, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In his own words, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

I dare you to watch that speech and not be inspired. But it’s not original. I don’t say that to critique it, but Dr. King, being a reverend, had a deep theological background that frequently borrowed Biblical imagery. The inspiring ending of his speech was using the imagery of the Israelite’s finally being freed from captivity and slavery in Egypt and reaching the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, did not get to enter the Promised Land but God allowed him to go to the top of Mount Nebo and look out over the land He had promised to the Israelites (you can read the account here). Dr. King led a movement that fought to bring African-American’s out of the slavery of inequality and because of the brokenness of man, he did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. But he got a glimpse.

So Dr. King borrowed from biblical imagery. He took his idea to turn the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount. He was strengthened in his fight for non-violent resistance by the example of Mahatma Ghandi.  Ever been to a southern baptist church? Even his passionate delivery echoes sermon style of those who had gone before him. His art and rhetoric was influenced by imitation, theft in a small way, honoring that which was before him. And that’s not a bad thing. The greatest artists all had people who influenced them and even if they claim originality, I would contend they are all taking inspiration and imitating to some degree the only Original Artist. We, in whatever art we pursue, are thieves, in a healthy way, stealing inspiration without paying (even if you cite your source, you still didn’t pay), needing to acknowledge our lack of originality in our artistic output even as we strive to be unique. I would contend that with this humble posture, we will have the freedom to actually create, because it will free us from the pressure of originality and simply be the joy in the journey to something new…new-ish at least.

So take what you have seen, draw inspiration from that, and in freedom, create.


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