to create or to copy

 

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.

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7 thoughts on “to create or to copy

  1. > In the end, the greatest artists are those that can make ANY work, whether their own or someone else’s, speak powerfully.

    I would qualify that by replacing “speak powerfully” with “speak powerfully to themselves”. If an artist works by listening to their emotions and the emotional (or secondarily, intellectual) responses they experience with respect to their own work, they are more likely to create something valuable even if it fails to evoke a similar emotional response in an audience. If the art is good and the individuals around you share some innate similarities with you, an audience will form. If not, then no matter. It’s still good art.

    > 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.

    This reminds me of experiencing a piece of art (visual, musical, whatever) and getting nothing out of the immediate experience. Then, I read the blurb that explains it and find that the artist has a strongly theoretical/intellectual background and has an *idea* that is interesting but seems to have failed to have been communicated immediately enough in the work itself. Or maybe I just don’t fall within the sphere of “potential audience member” ;]

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  2. See, I think that in the end, the purpose of art is to communicate. Albeit a different kind of communication than what you’d find with, say, language but communication nonetheless.

    But like language, you’ll only be able to communicate with those folks who share your language. While it might be admirable to go sit in the woods and meditate yourself into enlightenment, if you can’t pass on your insights to anyone then what use is the enlightenment except to yourself. That was one of the conundrums in Buddhism and one of the things that eventually caused the split into Mahayana and Hinayana camps. The former wanted to find a way to help others into nibbana while the latter were content with self-enlightenment (and was thus seen as selfish which was anathema to Buddhism).

    And that’s sort of the whole problem with Orchestras that I blogged about here. As Tony Woodcock said, ‘Is playing excellently enough? For too long, we have believed the maxim: “Play well… they will come.” Doesn’t happen–anymore.’

    And it isn’t working. I’ve done my share of experimental, noise, performance art and whatever so know what it’s like to have an even smaller audience than the shrinking one found in Classical music–and no protestations to the contrary will help me feel better about the fact that I wasn’t really connecting to many people.

    I guess that’s another reason I’ve come to re-examine my mission statement and really need to get back to blogging about the economics of underserved audiences!

    The other side of the coin is exactly what you said about a work failing to communicate the strong conceptual ideas behind it. It could be a bit of an artist who wasn’t equal to the task as much as our inability to understand it because we’re not in that “potential audience member” community.

    It’s a tough balance for sure, but I’m done with the extremes of “Art for Art’s sake” and the purported immediate mass appeal of much popular art. I like that middle ground–figures, since I’m Buddhist, eh? 😛

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