Oddunout: On the pain and pleasure of creating

In Laura’s post Oddunout: On the pain and pleasure of creating, I found something quite interesting. She discussed the offensiveness to her of sneakily using others’ creative works within her own works:

So I had this conversation with the Dutch about the picture I was/am working on, and I was saying how I’d already spent like 20 hours on it, and I still didn’t have the map the way I wanted it to be. Being a programmer (or whatever it is he does, exactly), he suggested I could find a map I liked and just steal it for my own purposes. “I do it all the time,” he said, “Because I don’t want to be reinventing the wheel again!” It actually took me a moment to splutter at the sheer unthinkable-ness of the suggestion. Quite aside from the fact that “borrowing” things for your art is plagiarising (i.e. Very Naughty), the thought, as they say, hadn’t even speculated the merest possibility of entering my mind.

This is very interesting to me, partly because I understand and agree, and partly because I also don’t understand and don’t agree.

Of course, my first reaction is to disagree. After all, stealing isn’t Naughty, it’s what good poets do. (That’s on the authority of Mr. Eliot himself, and Shakespeare and Chaucer and plenty of other geniuses of literature and music have done the same.) After all, if you use something as a creative springboard, or in a kind of subtle pastiche, or in tribute, or to retell a story in a new way, I’m generally very cool with that.

Hey, I’ve listened to Professor Lessig’s book. I know what time it is. I know what’s goin’ on. I understand about derivative artworks and about “Walt Disney-style creativity”. I deeply agree that there is such a thing as Fair Use, and that small uses of others’ creative works, inoffensive uses that aren’t directed at the destruction of the original artwork’s niche and profitability, it’s completely correct to say that such uses ought to be considered Fair Use in a way that the law effectively legitimates so that ridiculous lawsuits would be impossible from the get-go.

But to think that derivative artwork is necessarily the way to go, that’s another story altogether. I have always found cover versions of songs quite pointless unless they differed significantly from the original — if it doesn’t, why bother playing the song? If you can’t contribute to the thing, make it your own somehow, there really is no point in performing it. This doesn’t mean style has to differ significantly; we really don’t need a trip-hop version of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. However, hearing different bands play the same jazz standard, even in a hardbop style, you hear really different renditions — as long as they’re good bands.

In my musical attempts in the past, I always was directly interested in the derivative nature of music itself. Music is built on whatever music existed before it. If you study the history of music you find an accumulation of techniques and approaches to composing and performing, a widening of the palette, but also a whole set of hereditary relationships that run in chains through musical history, correcting composers via lines of influence that, in some sense, can be understood as creating semi-derivative works existing in a kind of musical lineage.

But to use this word, “derivative”, in this sense is not completely valid, these days. Even with Lessig’s work to recover the idea of derivative works (artistic or otherwise creative), there abides the sense that derivative work is, well, substandard in quality. The fact is that in making another’s artwork one’s own, one very often has to rebuild it from the ground up. Shakespeare’s version of many of his stories are far more complex and nuanced than the versions he based his plays upon. When Medeski, Martin, and Wood play a Monk tune, it sounds like some kind of weird refraction of Monk through MMW, a kind of new hybrid creation.

Largely, derivative works (like non-derivative works) are very often substandard, but the thing is, a substandard derivative work in this day and age is infinitely easier to produce than a substandard nonderivative work, because copy-and-paste is so much easier these days. There’s something about sitting down and writing
a bunch of substandard nonderivative stories that helps you eventually write above-standards nonderivative stories. You learn how to create characters, imagine an environment and relationships of interest to yourself. I have doubts about people’s ability to learn how to write proper fiction when they start out writing fanfic — though yes, some of that is personal bias. I happen to trust more writers who start out as RPG gamers, since I started out that way too. But I can say, and I think most people will agree, that a person who sits around writing novels from his or her own imagination stands a better chance of becoming a decent writer than the person who hangs around writing fanfic novels. Maybe it’s old school, but I do think that hard work can translate into more skill.

As for Laura’s situation, I probably would say something like that copy-and-pasting a map from someone else’s work would be, well, I’d probably not be cool with it if it’s out of laziness. However, looking around for a real old map that fit what she was looking for — such a search can be actual work — and then integrating it into her artwork, that could be an act of genius, if she did it right. In fact, it might surpass the genius of creating a brilliant map of her own and using it, depending on context and all. It’s have to be a pretty good map to go that far, but it’s certainly possible.

But yeah, copy-and-paste out of laziness, I’m totally with Laura on that. It’s just a bad, bad habit.

3 thoughts on “Oddunout: On the pain and pleasure of creating

  1. I didn’t really emphasize (and I agree with you) that in certain situations, borrowing is totally acceptable – such as the examples you’ve pointed out. I think it’s more a case of personal distaste toward ‘borrowing’ artwork from someone else. I want to have that feeling of “I made this!” and I can’t be having with “…except that bit.” :)

    My inner editor tends to cut out most instances of ‘but what if’ from my blog entries, but it’s not so bad when someone else picks the ball. Good points, as usual!

  2. Heh. I think most of my blood cells have “but what if” written on them. Sometimes I get into rants or one-track-minded thinking, but usually with either a nudge or some time to think things over, I get more comfortable with the idea of the “but what if”.

    I have an interesting idea for you, by the way, in the form of a challenge. Sometimes I think the best way to force myself to grow creatively is to set before myself a ridiculously difficult exercise, and attempt to make good on it. Given your personal distaste for “borrowing” from others’ works, I would like to issue a challenge to you: attempt through pastiche alone to create a new artwork about which you can get a really, truly satisfied sense of creative involvement.

    Even if such a thing turns out to be impossible, it’s still an interesting task. Of course, I’m not familiar enough with visual arts to help make the challenge more specific than that: maybe only surfaces would be “borrowed”, or maybe only “themes”, or perhaps surfaces and colors. I don’t know. I once wrote a piece of music which was almost completely formed out of quotations, and another which a canon (you know, like “Row Row Roe Your Boat”) that was purely mathematically built out of ratios of 4:2:2:3.

    Those pieces were in fact failures — but I learned a lot writing them, just as, earlier this year, I learned a lot in rewriting a section of a Charles Dickens novel as if an AI had scanned it and were basing upon it a description of life in a futuristic prison. Maybe that experiment will go somewhere, maybe not, but I learned a lot in the process.

    But I know, you’re in art school and experimenting like mad. I guess I just found others’ experiments far more sane and therefore less educative, somehow. :) Maybe your school’s better than mine was, though!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *