Monday, August 30, 2010

Influences

I heard a great quote the other day that went something like this: "Every artist has influences. It is the artist's duty to transform and transcend them." (William Styron)

One hallmark of the modern era in art is its insistence on originality. Each of us is instructed to find our own voice, to create "authentic" work that is truly our own and truly original. So it is that a Jackson Pollock gets high praise from the art critics not because of the painterliness or skill which he demonstrated, but because of the originality.

The problem with finding your "authentic" original style is the burden it places on young artists as they strive to avoid copying and push themselves straight toward the masterpieces they dream of doing some day. For beginning artists, there is absolutely nothing wrong with copying what you like, or even what you don't, because it will teach you things. As long as you don't claim it as your own.

[Aside: Borges once wrote what I consider to be a hilarious story about copying called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" in which a fictitious writer (I assume, since with Borges it is often hard to sort fact and fiction) Pierre Menard reproduces the Cervantes' master work word for word. the story is written as a book review of the Menard reproduction in which the author declares Menard's work is superior. Two paragraphs are compared and the reviewer rhapsodizes over the improvement Menard brings to his version, even though it is identical.]

On the other hand, what are we to think of those cultures where reproduction is the order of the day in their art. We went to the Southwest last year and saw Native American art where many of the symbols and images have remained unchanged for centuries. In Asia there are artists making pictures the same way they did a millennium ago. What was the process by which a Picasso or Pollock emerged from our culture and not theirs. In this sense we see a huge influence being the culture we find ourselves in.

As artists, we are so immersed in our culture that we're often oblivious to its influence on us, much like the air that surrounds us, which we take into our lungs and is transported into every cell of our being.

Andre Gide (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1924) once said, "Those who fear influences and shy away from them are tacitly confessing the poverty of their souls."

The reality is that we are all part of something bigger than we are. And the people who have made the greatest impact understand this, that they are interconnected in ways both visible and invisible to the greater streams, forces and stories of history.

Food for thought, for another day.

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