How much ownership can an artist claim over their work, especially after it is in the public consciousness? I began to ponder this question after watching this really excellent cover of Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Led Zepplin is an important band to me. They do not carry the weight or influence of The Beatles, but they are the first full on rock band I fell in love with, and in many ways I look at rock through Zepplin-colored glasses. "Stairway" is easily my Zepplin favorite song, and yes— I know that's not very original. That's why I was surprised by how much I like this version.
As a writer and avid reader, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how ideas are communicated in the written word, and how much our words, phrasing and feel (in short, the craft of this medium) shape the actual reception of an idea. I'm not alone. This is a topic on the minds of many like-minded literary nerds, and there is little consensus. Oh sure, the fashionable academic elites are settled on a throughly post-modern view of literature— that the reader's interpretation rules all. But, not everyone agrees. I tend to stick with authorial intent, although I am not settled on it. "Reader response" feels too narcissistic for me.
Figuring out this question is not easy for a writer, but I suspect music gives us a better playground to think about it. Take this video for example. The song is absolutely Led Zepplin's, in every way. They wrote it, performed it and brought into worldwide acclaim. But this cover is not the only one. It has been reworked by many. Each of those performances are the covering singers for sure, but you cannot remove Zepplin from the equation in any of them.
When a new creation is released into the wild, the wild will act upon it. Society and culture will go to work on it, shaping, turning, cleaving and polishing it. In the end, the song, book, poem or play will exist both inside and outside of the creator's mind, as both singular and varied. It will be at once the piece that the artist created and the image of it the public has settled on. Once this has occurred, how much ownership can the originator really claim? Is it his? Is it his fan's? Is it his imitator's? Is it the culture's? In some sense, the answer may be 'yes' to all.
This work of art, reinterpreted by many, is one item, one objective thing, with many faces. Some of them are beautiful, some of them are ugly, but all of them have the original at their heart. They are separate, but the same. Unified, but unique. How do we reconcile these two facts found in our experience?
I don't know. I might call it magic. Or dismiss it as a quixotic philosophical conundrum. But I think the better place to leave it is this: it is a metaphysical mystery that all artists, and audiences, should pause to consider. There is beauty in this ambiguity, and frankly, I think it tells us something about our Author.