September 20, 2017

Influence & Originality

I've got some half-formed thoughts about originality and influence rattling around in my head. Yoni # 26 dislodged these ponderings from where they normally roost. The impetus? I spied a facebook post by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sharing an unfamiliar to me piece by Ana Mendieta.
Image link:
Image credit: Ana Mendieta,
Untitled (Sandwoman Series), 1983–84
from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
I love this shape. Vulvic, figural, seedpod-esque. The texture, the color, the simplicity. Smitten I am. I looked up the Sandwoman Series, but this is the one piece that I can't get out of my mind. So I played around with it. Drew it, toyed with the proportions, stitched it, filled it in, added color.
Yoni # 26 did not exorcise this shape from my fascination. I'm not close to being done with this shape. I'm hooked. Looking at seedpods more closely. While walking, stopping every 50 feet to peer at plants, seeds, flowers, or pick up fallen pods, nutshells, nuts, and husks. Wishing my Ohio milkweed pods hadn't succumbed to mildew - I had dreams for working with those dried husks! - and thus chucked out ages ago.

All of which got me thinking about influence. I mean, how many influences and inspirations did I just mention above? 1. Ana Mendieta, 2. vlulva / yoni, 3. abstracted figural shapes, 4. seedpods, 5. plant growth structure, 6. seeds, 7. flowers, 8. nutshells, 9. nuts, 10. husks. TEN! A full dozen if we count texture and color. And yet I loathed the word influence when I was an art student. The most uncomfortable classroom moment was the inevitable question, "Who are your influences?" Always asked by a professor of the students. (I can't for the life of me remember a student ever asking that question of anyone, in any context.) 
There should be a mandatory class in art school to demystify the creative impulse. Maybe some students get it, but I sure didn't. To me, influence was a dirty word. Equated with unoriginal. I truly believed that originality was king. That being influenced was weak. That true creativity was independently generated. That to be worthwhile, work must be new, unique, original, or at the very least innovative. Seriously? Where the hell did that idea come from? Look at the history of art (history of any kind, really) and it's all repetition and riffs on the same shit over and over and over. Originality is horseshit. Of course we're influenced and inspired by what we see and hear and taste and touch and experience. Can you imagine art made by someone who has been isolated in a sensory deprivation chamber since birth? (Gawd, what an awful thought.) Utterly ridiculous.

So where did the notion of originality come from? How and why is it equated with success? I'm not interested in debating the validity of claims to originality; if something is interesting why does it matter? What I find to be horseshit is the exaltation of originality as the be all end all. As long as it's not an all out copy, as long as copyright isn't infringed, does it really matter if an idea is unoriginal? Think about it. Haven't you seen a remake of a film that was better than the original? Or a cover version of a song that knocks the socks off the original recording?

There's nothing more sad to me than the thought of someone stifling a creative impulse because they believe it to be influenced by something done before or because the idea is unoriginal. That's tragic. The urge to create something shot down before it blossoms into something new. New in that that particular something does not exist in the physical world, not as made by those particular hands, in that particular way, to work out that particular thought or follow that particular jolt of joy.
Somewhat related is the following passage from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, speaking about the time after her book Eat, Pray, Love became a astronomical bestseller:
     I can't tell you how many people said to me during those years, "How are you going to top that?" They'd speak of my great good fortune as though it were a curse, not a blessing, and would speculate about how terrified I must feel at the prospect of not being able to reach such phenomenal heights again.
      But such thinking assumes there is a "top" -- and that reaching that top (and staying there) is the only motive one has to create. Such thinking assumes that the mysteries of inspiration operate on the same scale that we do -- on a limited human scale of success and failure, or winning and losing, of comparison and competition, of commerce and reputation, of units sold and influence wielded. Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious -- not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self. Most dangerously of all, such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play.
I'll leave it that for now, before I gear up into a full-on rant. I'm really interested in your thoughts on this. Do you think about creativity and originality and influences and inspirations? Have you ever not made something because "it's been done before?" How does that feel? What does it lead to?

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