Blog / 2011 / Imitator? Yes. Innovator? Maybe.

November 29, 2011

It’s true. Innovations get all the credit for helping culture to develop, but innovations are just imperfect imitations that happen to be an improvement on the old form.

What’s more, pure imitation fosters culture just as much as innovations do by making a piece of culture seem more valuable. Imitation creates a context and that context allows culture to be understood by a wider population, something that, in turn, allows culture to thrive and evolve.

In other words, art would die without imitation.

This idea is hard for some artists to digest. When I bring up how important copying is to art-making, I get a lot of blank stares and too many “well you can imitate if you want, but I create.”

And I get it. Artists want to think of themselves as original. And it’s true that on some level everyone is unique and their expressions are distinctive. That said, it’s a mistake to dismiss imitation’s importance to art.

copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night by a high schooler
Gwenn Seemel
My Starry Night
1995
acrylic on panel
18 x 22 inches
(More artworks I created in high school can be found in this gallery.)

I recognize the imitation factor in my own work:

  • I imitate by putting paint on canvas.
  • If no one had ever done that, there would be no context for doing it. In that world, my paintings wouldn’t be seen for their subjects or their technique: they’d likely be feared or ridiculed and possibly marveled at because pigment in medium slathered onto stretched fabric is such a strange thing.

  • I imitate by painting portraits.
  • That’s something that not all cultures do, but, in the ones that have a context for the genre, people often like my work.

  • I imitate other artists.
  • Van Gogh was an important influence when I was 14 or so, but I continue to steal bits and pieces from other artists.

  • I imitate the crosshatching of printmaking in my painting.
  • I developed my style starting with an intaglio class I took in my teens. I translated the methods of one medium into another.

  • I imitate when I create derivative works.
  • This is crucial to my process as an artist. Many of my paintings have no meaning without the existence of an original work for me to remix. My Apple Pie series is full of paintings like that—paintings that quote propaganda, comics, cartoons, cultural icons, and other artists.

Am I an innovator? Are my imitations imperfect enough? Are they an improvement on what came before? Maybe or maybe not.

The point is that all artists imitate even if they don’t innovate.

And since that’s the case, how can we pretend that we own the work we make? How can we stop others from imitating the culture we create? How does copyright benefit culture and culture-makers?

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