This Is Art – Repeat after me

By: Jack Rechsteiner, managing editor

What is an artist supposed to be?

I feel like this is the question on the forefront of the minds of people who are coming into their own as artists. Even long-established artists can be plagued with thoughts of whether or not they’re doing it “right,” but in the early stages of developing yourself as an artist, it’s easy to doubt yourself as being a, quote-unquote, artist. And there always seems to be this all-encompassing pressure to create something original. The fear that there is nothing worse than being a “rip-off” of your influences.

What is this thing we celebrate called “originality” and why is “copying” one of the most scathing insults to throw at an artist? There is nothing dripping with more malice in the art world than calling a piece “derivative.” But why?

Our speech, our music, our clothes and art are all incorporating different influences: what we hear, say and write is nearly always some type of repetition or variation. Try to write a paragraph with no influences or inspirations from something else. Try having a conversation without words that you’ve used before. Try to listen to a song or look at a picture that remind you of nothing you’ve previously heard or seen. Could you do any of those? Probably not. And that is because of how much our experience of life is based in imitation.

Everything is interlinked and has some resonance with ourselves. Each person’s identity is a collage of what they’ve experienced. We are creatures made into concepts of “identity” and “self” thanks to the memories and experiences we hold onto. As individuals, each of us are made up of echoes of association.

We spend a large amount of our time as copycats when we’re developing our true selves. Or maybe a little more graciously we could call ourselves disciples. We model our actions, style, opinions and speech on those we look up to in the hopes that we can make it our own. From those motions of imitation, we find what works for us and what doesn’t and begin to carve out our own integral identities. We overhear bits of conservation and repeat them later, or we find an expression that impacts us and we borrow it for use. There’s nothing shameful – and actually a lot to be admired – in paying tribute to those who influence us or rehearsing what has happened before.

In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges suggests that Pierre Menard, far from being derivative, is in fact superior to Miguel de Cervantes because in knowing what that author knew, he can expand upon the knowledge of the work. Menard writes with an enlarged voice, echoing what Cervantes said and in effect making it resonate more with the audience for whom he is writing. This blending of past with present is something essential to creating art.

There’s a great phrase that sums up all this: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” I’m now implicated in a long line of people who have co-opted that phrase for my own reasons, but I’ve seen it and heard it said more times than I could count. There are claims that the phrase came from T.S. Eliot saying, “Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal,” but still the origin of the phrase has been lost to time only to be stolen by great artists time and time again.

This fear of repetition is something that all artists face, whether it’s repeating themselves or someone else. No matter how we strive for change, we copy and repeat. This is by no means a bad thing. Imitation has more to do with quantity instead of quality; it’s simply simpler and more comfortable. No matter how we strive for change, we will copy and repeat. But every once in a while, out of that cyclic circle of stealing comes a proverbial flash of lightning, that signature of originality that we all prize so much. No matter much how we strive for change, we will copy and repeat and eventually we will get it right.

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