I was reminded of a quote I’ve often posted in various online forum debates about originality in music. Here’s the blurb from an old issue of the Theatre Symposium journal–the special issue titled “Crosscurrents in Drama: East and West” (Volume 6, 1998). It’s from “Part II: The Symposium, A Panel Discussion on Crosscurrents in the Drama” which is a condensed transcription of the panel discussion. Samuel Leiter says this in his discussion about Asian theatrical performance:
[This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.
I think it can be too easy to be so concerned about originality at the expense of the realization that we’re always borrowing from someone before us. It may make good talk for artists to talk about lack of creativity, but more often than not I find those kinds of arguments disingenuous at best, and just downright wrong at worst.
At the same time, the slavish devotion to copying, mimicking or imitating someone else can be just as impossible a feat to accomplish (as the Japanese artists above intimate) but it’s so easy to accuse someone of doing just those things when we can’t recognize the actual individuality and idiosyncrasies of someone’s “representation” of a work.
In the end, the greatest artists are those that can make ANY work, whether their own or someone else’s, speak powerfully. On the flipside the weakest artists have to hide behind the rubric and hubris of citing originality and creativity, or, dedication to the re-creation of a previous work to hide the fact that he or she has nothing really to say.