Imitation May Not Be Completely Useless, But It Is Cheap

In an acting book report that I heard recently, a student paraphrased the author, “Don’t imitate; create.” He went on to elaborate and to clarify the differences between pretending and doing, explaining that the author was talking about honesty in acting. What he said about acting also applies to art in general. It’s a topic I have discussed before, but it’s one that keeps coming up. Today I am not as concerned about the honesty part as I am about the imitation part.

The creation part may be questionable to some. Creation implies originality, and a number of people say that nothing is original, that we are forced to remix and remodel old ideas. That may be, but no one, it seems, is particularly fond of imitation. Picasso reportedly said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” which pundits have modified into the often used, “Steal; don’t imitate.” Or perhaps all of this is just a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s observation: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.…

The question that remains is if originality really is beyond reach, why is imitation scorned? The answer is simply that imitation is an admission that whatever you are copying is worth more than anything you could do yourself. Imitation is not just stealing; it is merely mimicking. Imitation is cheap.

This is not to say that all imitation is a terrible thing. Often, as a learning exercise, art students are asked to make a painting or a photograph or a drawing in the style of a famous artist, or at least a distinctive one. But even in such an exercise, outright copying is generally frowned upon. The poor student will copy the masterwork slavishly, trying to reproduce exactly what the older artist has done. The better student will look at the work of the established artist, and maybe others by the same artist and create something that incorporates the artistic concepts of the master artist but is still the student’s own work. These latter students learn the intimacies of the master artist without giving up their own identities.

Even participating in a learning exercise, the second group of students would be doing what some would call “original” work. It is work that is decidedly based on earlier work, but not blindly mimicked, not imitated. It is an application that teaches the successful students more about the style and content of another’s work through thought and analysis than they could ever learn by simply reproducing that artist’s work. But there the value of imitation ends.

Even if everything that you make is a remix or a remodeling or mash-up of the ideas of others, at least it will be your remix or your remodeling or your mash-up. It will reflect your approach, your effort, you. And in that sense it will be original, or at the very least authentic. It will be real.

What the Bhagavad Gita says about living life can be applied equally to making art: “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of someone else’s life with perfection.” It is better to make your own authentic art imperfectly, regardless of where you get the ideas, than to make a perfect imitation of someone else’s art.

And perfection, as we all know, is highly overrated.

Date: Sunday, 3. April 2011 23:56
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Education, Originality

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1 Comment

  1. 1

    Very well said…couldn’t agree more.

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