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On art and imitation

Anyone who has spent much time in my company knows of my penchant for mimicry. This is largely manifested in the imitation of noises (from the beep-BEEP of the work card-reader to the screech of a baby dinosaur), but also of words, phrases, slang, intonations, accents, and even body language. As my poor family can attest to, this has been a lifelong tendency, and definitely a part of what makes me, me. (It only occasionally gets me in trouble when it’s taken as mockery.) My vernacular is made up of friends’ slang, phrases I’ve read, past jokes, familial hand gestures, and numerous morsels picked up from pop culture.

…So is yours, I imagine.

We can’t help it. Humans have evolved to copy. It’s how we learn. It’s how we progress. Young children copy facial expressions, sounds, the basics of speech and movement. Slightly older children learn how to interact with other humans. They say teenagers try on personas like trying on clothes – copying what appeals to them at the time.

Maybe if you were brought up in an empty white cube and were never exposed to any culture, you could be original. But you probably wouldn’t actually know how to function as a human. And the idea of making anything may not come anywhere near your deprived little existence.

Surely, for a very long time, educational systems were predominantly built on copying-as-learning. Anything practical is learnt by apprenticeship – the student copies the master. Art has a long history of being taught this way, as a trade.

So now that art is thought of as less of a craft, and more as expression, how come learning how to be “creative” has to be done entirely from scratch? There’s a deep fear of being “unoriginal” which leads to ideas of being “unauthentic” or a fraud, which would somehow invalidate what you’ve made.

It becomes yet another psychological roadblock trying to stop you from doing what you want – which is make work. I don’t know about you, but I can get somewhat self-conscious about it. Whenever I put up a new photo, part of my brain thinks “EUGH. I’m sure someone’s done this idea before. Or something very much like it.”

One of many ways that the internet is a double-edged sword is the easy access that we have to so much content. Not only can we see what’s come before us, but we can also see what others are making right now. There’s a sense of infinite content and the inescapable idea: “If I’ve thought of this, it probably already exists and is on the internet.” As humans, we’re drawn to novelty – things we haven’t seen before engage more of our attention. So with this greater accessibility to content, we’re fighting to stand out from everything else, ever – not just what’s going on in our local scene. I’m not sure the post-modern concept of “nothing is original” is enough of a comfort in an onslaught of this scale.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of internet-criticism (with all the potential of being ill-informed, ill-thought-out, uncaring or just plain malicious) centres on this point of unoriginality. There are a lot of people out there ready to call you up on doing something similar to what some else has done. I haven’t experienced this first hand, but this is what I’m seeing: “You’re just ripping off X”, “You’re just trying to be Y”, “Yawn, why doing you get some ideas of your own?”

These are dumb reasons to not make work. Everyone is trying to be some version of their personal giants when they start out. Everyone is a product of what has come before. Talk to anyone successful and they can likely give you a list of influences as long as your arm. Probably much longer. People well-known for having a distinctive style have all gone through the phase of imitating what they liked.

Neil Gaiman has blogged about it:

“And what amazed me was that there was almost nothing there that was written by me.  I’d sound like E.E.cummings one moment and an awkward mash-up of Moorcock and Zelazny the next. You can tell exactly when I’ve been reading the complete poems of Rudyard Kipling…  I could point to every poem, every unfinished fragment of prose in that folder, and tell you who I’d been reading, what I was thinking at the time. Everything read like a bad imitation of somebody else. There wasn’t anything in there that indicated that I was going to be a writer, a real writer, with something to say, except for one thing, and it was this:

I was writing. There was lots of writing going on.

E. B. White (who, for the record, I have fallen in love with – posthumously) wrote about his early contributions to the New York Evening Post and the New York Herald in “The Years of Wonder”:

“My prose style at this time was a stomach-twisting blend of the Bible, Carl Sundberg, H. L. Mencken, Jeffrey Farnol, Chistopher Morley, Samuel Pepys, and Franklin Pierce Adams imitating Samual Pepys.”

How many voices, skins, hands do we need to try on before we mould our own? (Sorry if that invokes Silence of the Lambs flashbacks.) Does it matter? Surely we will end up an inevitable mash-up of everything we’ve taken in and let touch us. Just as we all have a unique combination of genes, so we all have a unique combination of tastes and experiences.

I certainly have a tendency to imitate whoever I’m reading at the time (I’m looking at you in particular, White). Victorian prose does a real number on me (I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat). My friends sometimes laugh at the formality of my text messages. What an anachronism! And as a member of Gen Y, has the danger of marking me out as a bit pretentious.

The influences to my art are plain to see. In both theatre and photography, I’ve been consciously and unconsciously mimicking the likes of Gregory Crewdson, Robert Wilson, Paul Jackson, Sarah Ann Loreth, and countless others. And that’s ok. Paul was nice enough to give me a list of his influences, and many other artists’ can be found with googling.

The point I’m trying to make (and I’m not pretending that it’s one I came up with by myself) is that mimicry is unavoidable. And mimicry is not to be feared because it’s an important phase of artistic development. Journeyman artists should embrace this and keep working, experimenting, learning. It is inevitable that eventually the work you make will begin to have an unquestionable stamp – only your hand could have made it.

It would be foolish to ignore what the previous generations have learnt. My mother has a habit of saying “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” She’s kind of right. By all means, experiment, make up your own methods, progress. But that doesn’t mean we need to rediscover everything from scratch in some misguided quest to be “authentic”. The glorious thing is that we can start with what’s gone before us and build from there. We just have to work at it.

Funnily enough, I drafted this post and then a book I’d ordered online arrived. It was Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist. I sat down and read it. My first thought was “Yes, this is amazing! Such great advice!” closely followed by “Shoot. I’ve just written about art and imitation but Austin Kleon does it so much better.”

I’d been meaning for months to buy this book, and some of his ideas have undoubtedly influenced this essay. But I’m going to post this anyway because a) I’m stubborn, b) I made a promise to myself to write and post every week and c) we could agree to call this something of an open letter of appreciation to a book that everyone should read. It is extremely good advice, no matter what field you’re in. It’s not very big, and it’s certainly not expensive. And there are pictures.

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