From 19th century art to contemporary rock music, here are some of the traps and pitfalls imitation might present to an emerging artist, showing why imitation sometimes works and why sometimes it doesn’t.
by Jeffrey Grunthaner
Imitation is not something to be avoided at all costs. By mirroring others, copying how they behave, how they accomplish things, we can deepen our own sense of interpersonal involvement with the world around us. However, there’s a limit, past which imitation appears servile, repressing what is most individual and creative in a person. From anxiously following trends, to confidently emulating the habits of one’s heroes, there emerges a graduated difference between thinking for oneself and accepting readymade answers. With this in mind, we will show how great canonical artists have been fruitfully imitative, and how an artistic career has been impaired by thoughtless imitation.
The TV-friendly, Indiana native, Bob Ross unwittingly reared an entire generation of artists. It wasn’t just his alla prima technique or his dulcet tone of voice. Behind those instructions that would inevitably produce yet another landscape painting, there was a quiet insistence on the essential moral decency of doing things one’s own way. Even more, Bob Ross sidestepped the entire gallery-collector system. Rather than win accolades in the traditional manner, through exhibitions, he utilized the populist medium of television to leave his mark on the world of painting. Despite the saccharine predictability of his work, Ross taught us never to imitate, to do things our own way.
But Ross’s show “The Joy of Painting” was really just a clone of a show hosted by his former mentor Bill Alexander. It could even be argued that Ross ripped off everything from Alexander’s “The Magic of Oil Painting,” right down to the black background and three camera-production. Just like Alexander before him, Ross taught that art, and painting specifically, was a place where the artist had total control, where the average person could do things their own way without fear of making a mistake. Ross’ form of art-as-therapy caught on in a way Alexander’s did not, mainly because Ross had a laid-back persona which seemed to perfectly compliment an ethic of creative originality. Whereas Alexander would electrify viewers, exuberantly attacking the canvas with his “almighty” brush, “Bob” (as he was affectionately known) would gently touch oils to the canvas, explaining his decisions with a voice as liquid and clear as the white paint he used as primer.
Bob Ross did things his own way – although he was heavily indebted to the work of Bill Alexander before him. If Ross had not owned the style of painting he inherited, his show might have flopped, and his alla prima technique might have been relegated to the status a public secret pioneered by canonical figures like Jan van Eyck, van Gogh, and Monet
Imitation isn’t always necessary, yet it’s only by copying others that we discover our own individuality. We can trace the idea of imitation as both a blessing and as a curse back to the 19th century, which laid the foundation for aesthetic modernity with the Impressionists and Cezanne. Concerning the psychological importance of imitation, the great 19th-century critic Walter Pater wrote as follows: “Imitation – it enters into the very fastnesses of character; and we, our souls, ourselves, are forever imitating what we see and hear, the forms, the sounds which haunt our memories, our imagination. We imitate not only if we play a part on the stage but when we sit as spectators, while our thoughts follow the acting of another, when we read Homer and put ourselves, lightly, fluently, into the place of those he describes: we imitate unconsciously the line and color of the walls around us, the trees by the wayside, the animals we pet or make use of, the very dress we wear.”
This is imitation verging on identity. Rather than imitation being something we aspire to become, it partakes of the very movement of our awareness, reflected in the world around us. Walt Whitman wrote something similar: “There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day . . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years,” Walt Whitman – In The Heydays of His Eyes.
Whereas imitation seemed synonymous with realism in the 19th century, 20th-century artists, such as Picasso and Braque, took things a step further. Cubism was an imitation not of how things appeared but of what they were in themselves: a sort of melding of the psychological conditions of consciousness with the physicochemical conditions of perception. Using the pictorial convention of the still life, Picasso and Braque visually re-created what science had only revealed in statements; and their cubist works are just as believably unbelievable as knowing that our brain reverses images originally presented upside-down to the eye, or that the music we hear from a violin is the movement of molecules in air.
The most strikingly original works of Cubism’s “analytical” phase were foreshadowed by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which developed aspects particularly present in African masks. As should go without saying, whatever items of inspiration Picasso found in Africa, derived not from any diplomatic understanding of Africa and Europe, but from the ruthless, militaristic colonization of an autonomous continent. Out of the violence of this appropriation, came that mark of “primitivism” for which Picasso is so well known.
This is where imitation takes on a new tone. What appeared as purely scientific imitation in the fin-de-siècle Europe, gradually came to be seen as a form of theft through the course of the 20th century. Of course, there’s a difference between the inspiration Picasso found in African art, and the meaning of that same art as found in its native context. But it’s undeniable that imitation precipitated one of the great European art movements of the 20th century. As PBS has noted: “In creating Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso turns his back on middle-class society and the traditional values of the time, opting for the sexual freedom depicted in a brothel. He also rejects popular current movements in painting by choosing line drawing rather than the color- and light-defined forms of Impressionism and the Fauves. The painter’s private demons take shape in the figures on the canvas. Picasso later calls Les Demoiselles d’Avignon “my first exorcism painting.” He likens the act of painting to that of creating fetishes, or weapons: “If we give spirits a form, we become independent.” The originality of Picasso’s vision and execution in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon help plant the seeds for cubism, the widely acclaimed and revolutionary art movement that he and painter Georges Braque develop in years to come.”
The more art shades into design, the more it bears the traces of the thing it imitates. For example, a three-dimensional likeness of the Sagrada Familia is obviously a form of imitation. But what happens when someone imitates something through writing, as opposed to visual, musical, or plastic forms?
In the world of poetry, there was recently a controversy regarding the work of Vanessa Place, who, for an art project, had decided to retweet every word, every sentence, of the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind. The racist overtones of Mitchell’s work were not glossed over in doing this. In fact, they were highlighted so explicitly that Place was vehemently called out for “imitating” this work, and, by way of rewriting it, aligning herself with its white supremacist message.
One critic, the poet Aaron Kunin, claimed that what Vanessa Place did was “bad” not because of any malevolent intentions or white supremacist sympathies, but because her execution was flawed. Retweeting Gone with the Wind, word for word, Place left no room for commentary apart from the words that Margaret Mitchell had originally used. As Kunin writes:
“What could it mean to say that the failure of Tweeting Gone with the Wind is aesthetic? How can I say that Tweeting Gone with the Wind is poorly written if Place isn’t writing anything new, but merely transcribing what Mitchell already wrote? Several writers have demonstrated that it is possible to evaluate Place’s project in terms of aesthetics…. The project [too] is easy because it involves no original composition, just the transcription of an already existing work.”
The problem, as Kunin sees it, lies less in Place’s intentions than in the lack of any genuine aesthetic value intrinsic to appropriation.
The logic of the market values novelty above all else. Living as we do in a world where “the next big thing” always looms large on the public’s horizon, imitation, as a form of discipleship, can translate into a form of resistance. More typically, however, imitation is commodified as a trend. Perhaps this phenomenon was most explicitly apparent in the music of the 90s. If we take Nirvana as the paradigm of a band that came up from underground cache to the status of international celebrity, we still have to deal with all the sound-alike and look-alike bands that followed in Nirvana’s wake. To the credit of bands like Bush, Cracker, and Silverchair, their “grunge” look and sound might have had less to do with a lack of original vision than pressure from record label executive who saw in them the sales potential of Nirvana. Nevertheless, when the grunge-wave broke, all of these bands found themselves struggling with their identity.
While imitation in music might be the quickest way to find an audience, it’s unlikely that it will ever leave a lasting legacy. These days, when rap has taken on commercial ascendence, imitation is prioritized even less. From Kanye to Kodak, what’s being marketed is more of a lifestyle than any particular musical sound. This pushes artists to live as originally as the music they make, sometimes blurring the line between the value of an artist’s work and the morality of his lifestyle.
While no great artistic innovation has ever happened in isolation, within the collective contexts where art has its place, and where new discoveries occur, there lurks the danger that one might fall into the trap of “mere” imitation. The most realistic works of any school could be said to imitate what they depict. And a lot of starstruck young artists might imagine themselves perfectly content if only they could do what the artists they admire have already done. Ultimately, however, one always ends up doing things one’s own way, and imitation becomes transformed into inspiration: a significant difference. The person who imitates could be said to steal another’s style, but the artist who is inspired by another rarely co-opts his or her style wholesale. Especially in the realm of painting, music, and writing, as we have seen, works become less effective and increasingly problematic the more they borrow from someone else or copy a particular culture.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, or Hyperallergic. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.