influence tracking #3: the blurry lines between inspiration, zeitgeist and thievery

{image: Wikimedia Commons}

A side note post as I continue to write about influences and inspiration.  It happens now and then that you see work that echoes another artist’s work so strongly that you have to wrinkle your nose and shake your head, especially when you know who’s rhyme came first.  A small number of times, I’ve seen work that looks a lot like mine, and then, depending on how close it is, the stunned connection is tinged with a feeling of betrayal and a string of questions… Has this artist seen my work?  Was this conscious?  Accidental?  Is it possible to come to such similar forms without having seen anything from me at all?  A magical product of the zeitgeist?  In any of these cases, even though there’s a bit of a startle involved, I tend to take this sort of thing lightly, mostly because of two things I hold to be true.

1) Art is, at its base, a product of copying.  Nothing, as it has been said of old, is new under the sun.  But each human being is unique, and so as the world of raw material meets each new set of eyes and hands, it has unforeseen possibilities for combinations of all the old tricks.  I think people can either reformulate what comes to them lazily, which looks like thievery, or brilliantly, which looks like all the best art on the planet.  And then there’s everything in between.  It all comes out in the wash because…

2)  I believe that the most original re-mixers will stick around, while those who are “derivative and lack conviction” (a favorite phrase from an old professor of mine) will fade out.  If you look at any art movement in history, there are people who push the edges and innovate and people who hold the center, making a style or approach indelible.  It could even be argued that the center-holders might be an important component in historical structuring.  Like the medics camped out away from the front lines in order to treat those who are wounded at the Avant Garde.

There’s a whole world of law surrounding this of course– intellectual property (what an amazing concept!) and copyright, etc.  And it becomes a different story when someone makes money off of someone else’s ideas.  But mostly we all have kind of a sensor for detecting whether someone’s heart is in what they do, and whether they are struggling to be originators.  What I always tell my students is to diversify their influences.  It’s possible to love one artist so much that you start to mimic him or her accidentally.  I’ve had plenty of times that I start to use a symbol or approach that I’m not consciously borrowing, only to later make the dotted line to something I’ve recently admired.  And that’s okay… I’m a sponge, we’re sponges.  The trick is to sponge up a lot of different things so that your soup is fresh.  (And you know when I tell students these things, I’m telling myself as well…)


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