When enrolling in a semester-long seminar centered around David Bowie, I was vastly ignorant to the multitude of work created by the artist in his nearly fifty year career. My parents, though neither of them regular concert-goers by the time I was born, in their youth, fell more naturally into the British-invasion and hippie veins of 1960s and 1970s rock music. I was (happily) raised-up on The Beatles, The Allman Brothers, and Bob Dylan. The clearest connection I could make to David Bowie was a passing reference made in an episode of the early 2000s sitcom Gilmore Girls, which I watched religiously as a teenager. So to say that I was walking in blind was an understatement—at the start of the class I probably could not have confidently named a single Bowie song. But I was open to learning and intrigued by his cross-disciplinary creative practice. While still I cannot say that I will listen to David Bowie on a daily basis, partial as I am to the musical virtuosity found in jam bands and bluegrass, studying the career of such a prolific and unique artist has undoubtedly imbued me with greater appreciation for his intellect and a new understanding of the multi-facetted implications of such a diverse creative output.
Most striking to me was Bowie’s ability to anticipate contemporary times, giving the impression that he was always one step ahead of everybody else. This nimble skill, I think, stems from his adept ability to absorb and appropriate all manner of creative style and cultural information. Bowie never claimed authenticity or originality, as so many creatives desperately and emptily try to do, readily claiming his talent as a “tasteful thief.” Even on his second album, Space Oddity, Bowie utilized the work of Op artist Victor Vasarely, and exploited the international space craze and the popularity of the 1968 film 2001 Space Oddessy. But as he matured, Bowie’s pastiche appropriations become sophisticated recontextualizations that worked toward his own artistic purpose, frequently projecting otherwise marginalized work into the limelight of pop culture. Upon meeting Warhol and the Velvets in New York, Bowie absorbed what he wished from their influences, and went on to create one of the most iconic personas in rock history. On Young Americans, he pulled from the rich musical history of black American culture, shifting dramatically to a soul/R&B style. And so on; one could fill the pages of a book with the artistic appropriations of David Bowie.
Too, I marvel at Bowie’s apparently bottomless knowledge of musical and visual works, both historical and contemporary. Even Bowie’s pose in the photo on the early Man Who Sold The World album references a relatively obscure pre-Raphaelite painting by Gabriel Rosseti. And as Ziggy, his wearing Yamamoto’s avant-garde kabuki designs point to his awareness of international cultures. His short-story The Diary of Nathan Adler is evidence of extensive knowledge of the contemporary art world. Ambiguous religious references run deep throughout his career, not to mention his nuanced critiques of social gender constructs. Rarely has an individual so spanned the mediums of artistic production, both consuming and creating music, visual art, fashion, and literature. My studies of David Bowie’s incredible catalog of diverse creations has left me inspired, more than anything, to study, to consume, to read, to look, to listen; to open my mind to potential inspirations without the debilitating fear of being unoriginal. As Bowie said when asked if he considers himself an “original thinker” in a 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, “Not by any means. More like a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from. I do think that my plagiarism is effective.”