While listening to an instrumental version of "Manha de Carnaval" by Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin today, I started wondering why it's perfectly acceptable for musicians to interpret someone else's original piece and in the process, give the listeners a different and sometime better listening experience. Music fans don't go around saying the Di Meola/McLaughlin version is not worth listening to as the original version from the Black Orpheus soundtrack almost 50 years ago. So I wonder why music fans are more accepting of artists interpreting compositions other than their own but when it comes to visual arts, new works done is an established style, say cubism or impressionism, is not given much weight by art critics and audiences alike. (I'm not even talking about redoing an existing piece line-by-line, color matched with subtle variations.
You can't really accuse music as stale since there are always a new emerging music niche in the underground, say gangster-trip-hop-death-metal that is ready to become the next big thing. However, the emphasis on doing something "new" in music movement is not as explicit as it is in the visual arts -- where only the cutting edge is revered. One really needs to look at the history of music and visual arts to fully realize the contrast between them. To prove my point, name 20 cubist artists other than Picasso and Braque. Having trouble coming up with five? I think this is due to the fact that artists consider cubism as having been done before, so they stay away from it as far away as possible. In contrast, I can think of at least 20 well-established jazz guitarists (with recording contract and sales) where each one contributed to advancing the genre and oh, by the way, in the process, recording a remake or two of a known classic (i.e. Manha de Carnaval). Imagine an painter of today doing a remake of a Dora Maar portrait or even worse, Guernica. Sacrilege is what every art critic would scream. But the question stands, does re-painting an existing work of art add anything different? Maybe or maybe not but at the very least, try.
Another example of how musicians uses previous works to cross-pollinate into another genre is Joaquin Rodrigo's composition Concierto De Aranjuez. Just imagine if musicians we satisfied with the (now) original 68-year old melody and were too afraid to take the essence of Aranjuez to the next level. We would not have have been fortunate enough to experience Miles Davis' entire Sketches of Spain album or Chick Corea's "Spain". Each of these artists took Rodrigo's original melody and put it through their own dissections, improvisations and interpretations. Yet no music critic would dare attach the label "unoriginal" to Miles Davis or Chick Corea. I must qualify though that there is evidence that some well-known painters did interpret works from previous artists but that seems to be in the minority. Picasso did some of this (others would argue that he did a lot) but Warhol took this to the next level -- I think both of them did it out of reverence or creative necessity. Maybe you need to be a Picasso or a Warhol to get away with this -- but in general, I don't see how this is possible in modern art for the average working artist, where only the ones the push the envelope are fully appreciated.
So in closing, before any of us are quick to point out that art does not have any value because “it’s been done before”, just give it a second look to see if the artist had something new to say, albeit subtle, with his or her piece.