My father, who once trained as a baker, taught me when I was a kid how to bake an apple pie. I don’t know where he got the original recipe from; I highly doubt that he invented it. Certainly he didn’t invent the idea of baking pies. And he didn’t invent the idea of baking an apple pie.
He was very clear about certain instructions:
- always use Granny Smith apples;
- always use ice-cold water;
- touch the dough as little as possible.
Since then, I’ve baked several apple pies, and over time I’ve modified the recipe slightly, but it’s essentially the same (and I never violate his prime instructions).
When I make a new apple pie, I’m not doing anything new.
That’s why, to my understanding, the fine arts (painting, sculpture, music, dance, etc.) traditionally sneer at the crafts (illustration, pottery, weaving, glass blowing, cooking, etc.): craft’s practitioners are “just following” inherited patterns and sets of advice. They’re not doing anything new.
Philip Glass, interviewed by his cousin Ira Glass, on NPR’s Fresh Air, 1999 (a literal transcription of minutes 16:50–20:00):
PHILIP GLASS: I’d finally, after I’d been there [Paris] about two years, I finally figured out why I was there. It took me so long to… And it was, we were having a lesson, and I had come in with my harmony, and we came to a place in the music, and she said, “This, this—it’s wrong here.” And I said, “Mademoiselle Boulanger, it’s correct.” And she said, “No, it’s wrong.” And I said, but, and I—we took out the—I cited the rules of voice leading and said that all of these things are correct, and there’s nothing wrong with it. And she said, “Yes, but if Mozart had done it, he would have done it like this.” And she played me the correct version, which was perhaps the soprano was in the—the third was in the soprano instead of the root of the chord was in the—whatever it was I’d done, I’d done it wrong. […] And I looked at her and I said, “But the rules were right.” She said, “Yes, but it’s still wrong.” And I, and I—I was astonished. And I—it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. And it was very interesting. I realized that she was teaching, uh, the relationship between technique and style. […] And without any doubt—she succeeded. And I realized that what she was telling me then was that the style of Mozart is a special case of technique. That the technique was right, but what made it sound like Mozart was the choices, the predilection that he had to solve the problem in a particular way.
IRA GLASS: In a different way than the rules would ever say?
PG: Well, no, he was in the rules, too. He followed the rules as well. But he—and she pointed out to me, that whenever Mozart was in that situation, he resolves a chord in this way. And even though the rules said it was possible to do it the other way, he—his particular—for example—Now let’s put the question another way. If you listen to, let’s say, a measure of Rachmaninoff, and then a measure of Bach, you know which is which. Without—you know immediately. And the question is, well, why do you know that? And the answer is that because they both are following basically the same rules of, uh, harmonic, of voice leading… But what happens is that you have, in you, in the course of your listening, you have taught yourself, uh, you recognize that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem in a certain way. You may not say that to yourself, but your ear will tell you that. And then Bach will do it in his way. And you say, oh, that sounds like Bach, or that sounds like Rachmaninoff, or that sounds like Stravinsky. And what you’re hearing is—let’s put it this way—you’re hearing the predilection of the composer to resolve a technical problem in a—in a highly personal way. So in other words—
IG: From that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way to solve—?
PG: Well, this is the point. The point is—uh—and this is the other thing which she didn’t say in words that day, but which I understood totally: that in order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique! In—you have to have a place to make the choices from. If you don’t, if you don’t have a basis on which to make to make the choice, then—then you don’t have a style at all, you have a series of accidents.
People usually (always?) learn by imitation. Someone shows you how to do something, either in person or through an example, and you copy them. Later on, you vary things up by exploring, experimenting, bringing in knowledge you’ve gleaned from elsewhere. But the basic principles, they’re formed by imitation.
This is as true in the fine arts as it is in the crafts. If you decide to be a poet, it’s because you saw poetry somewhere, or poets somewhere, that you liked. You didn’t wake up one morning and decide to invent poetry.
Over Thanksgiving, I was drawing with my younger cousins, and they kept drawing
- anime/manga characters;
- comics characters;
- video game characters.
One of my cousins also kept drawing images of horses and houses. And she had a very predetermined way of drawing them; i.e., she’d draw them the same way every time (the Sun up top on the left, flowers on each side of the house…). It was like she was executing a program.
I used to draw that way, too: I learned to draw by copying images from the Sunday funny pages, issues of X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nintendo instruction manuals, and issues of Nintendo Power. And I was very particular: I’d copy only artists I thought were good. And I copied their drawings over and over and over…
After a while, in high school, I started attending life classes, and drawing live models, but my artistic sensibilities—what I thought looked good—had largely been formed by Charles Shultz’s Peanuts, and the way that Marc Silvestri and Dan Green drew Wolverine:
God, I still love compactness of that style, and those dramatic swaths of black. (It’s what predisposed me to like Franz Kline!)
I also really loved the pictures in the Legend of Zelda user manual, and copied them endlessly (well, as best I could with just a set of cheap colored pencils):
That was one of my first exposures to anime and manga—although I didn’t know about those things at the time. (Do I even now know about them? Other than just knowing names for them?)
In middle school and high school, I read mostly fantasy novels: The Lord of the Rings, natch, as well as Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (which I still cherish), as well as other stuff I’ve—ahem—outgrown, like Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance novels (yes, like, all of them). I also read lots of Star Trek: The Next Generation novels; my favorites were the ones by Peter David (I had at least some taste). And no surprise, I wrote mostly fantasy and science-fiction stories…
(In my defense, I also read a lot of Shakespeare.) (And of course I wrote lots of Shakespearean sonnets.)
This is why I don’t mind now when incoming freshmen haven’t read Beckett. (Once you learn something, you forget that there was a time when you didn’t know it, didn’t even know about it.) I didn’t read Beckett until after I graduated college! (I read Waiting for Godot and How It Is while “working” at my first job. I don’t remember now what compelled me to pick them up. I think I remember liking them, even though I didn’t understand them. Then I read Alain Robbe-Grillet—I saw Last Year at Marienbad, mainly because Sacha Vierney had done the cinematography, and I was in love with Peter Greenaway films—and after that Beckett started making more sense to me.)
It’s kind of random, what order you approach things in. The biggest mistake that literary criticism makes is to assume that just because a work exists, people have read it. (Critics read a lot, and then they forget that others haven’t read everything that they have, and aren’t looking at culture in the same way—through the same vast array of works—that they are.)
(The second-biggest mistake that literary criticism makes is to assume that people read things in order. Again, How It Is before the Trilogy—and I read the Trilogy before I read Murphy and Watt—what a buffoon!) (And I still haven’t read Dream of Fair to Middling Women or Mercier and Camier—so how can I expect to understand anything about Beckett?)
In college, I read lots of Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Douglas Adams. And my writing started to look more like imitations of…
Then I switched my major to writing, and my writing instructors made me read a lot of Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie. And my writing started to look more like imitations of…
Later, in my junior and senior years, a different professor got me reading Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, Carole Maso, and Kathy Acker. And my writing started to look more like imitations of…
A pet theory: we most of us begin with the popular arts. If we get to the fine arts, it’s usually after we’ve been dunked good and proper in pop culture. (Of course, at times, the popular arts can be fine arts; witness David Bowie. And please don’t assume I’m claiming that the fine arts are necessarily better than the popular arts. Absolutely nothing is better than 1970s David Bowie!)
Regardless of where you start from or where you end up, the best you can hope for, along the way, I think, is to absorb enough influences that, after a while, you’re no longer clearly imitating just one or two of them. Or, to put it in Philip Glass’s terms: you can see more than just a few solutions to the creative problems you encounter.
The reason why I watched Peter Greenaway was because I was talking with a professor, and he asked me what movies I liked, and I mentioned Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And he said, “Oh, you like very visual movies.” I agreed, and complained that most movies weren’t visual enough for me. (My cinematic horizons were so vast, way back when!)
The professor then asked, “Well, have you seen anything by Peter Greenaway?”
I confessed that I hadn’t (didn’t even know the name), and he recommended that I watch Prospero’s Books. (I think he knew that I liked Shakespeare, in particular The Tempest.)
So a few weeks later I rented that movie from Blockbuster (of all places) with a friend, and we put it in at his house and turned it on, and it utterly blew our minds. I remember we had to keep stopping and restarting it, over and over again, because we couldn’t fully process what we were seeing:
(This is still, to my mind, some of the loveliest filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Ferdinand’s turn at 1:31, for instance, accompanied by the musical flourish, still astonishes me.)
…Why do I think it’s so lovely? Why do I still prize such elaborately visual filmmaking? No doubt some of it comes from my having watched this movie ad nauseam when I was a kid:
(Godspeed, Irvin Kershner.)
After Prospero’s Books, Michael Nyman’s score led me to…Philip Glass (among other things).
This is why I don’t put much stock in originality. Go ahead, show me something original you’ve made. …Well, how do I know I just haven’t yet seen where you stole that idea from?
…Not to mention, it doesn’t take all that much to make something innovative, and it doesn’t require any invention whatsoever. Lately I’ve been wanting to hear a folk band—a 90s-style coffeehouse folk band—that has a death metal singer. “Death folk”—wouldn’t that be simply awesome? To my knowledge, no one’s ever done it, despite the preexistence of both folk music and death metal. Nothing need be invented; two things need merely be combined, somehow.
(If this has already been done and you know where to find it, please let me know right away!)
A partial list of things that Orson Welles didn’t invent when he made Citizen Kane:
- deep focus;
- extensive use of visual effects (e.g., various optical printing effects and the use of miniatures and matte paintings);
- dramatic editing to expand or condense time and/or space;
- extensive makeup to age characters;
- nonlinear narration, and the repeated use of flashbacks.
Examples of almost all of those things can be found in other films made before Kane; what you can’t find is another single film that combines all of those things.
Welles’s other innovation was to bring in various ideas and techniques from theater and radio (where he’d been working before he made Kane, his first picture)—for instance, the film’s overlapping dialogue, and Bernard Herrmann’s ultra-dramatic, start-to-finish “radio score.”(Although we remember him as a movie composer today, Kane was Herrmann’s first film score; he’d worked only in radio before that.)
…Well, no one had told Orson Welles you couldn’t do all that stuff in a movie! He knew next to nothing about filmmaking!
What people like so much about outsider artists is how they surprise us by not making what we already expect to see (“It’s so crazy!“).
Henry Darger was himself a fabulous copier:
He gathered images from comics, children’s books, old newspapers; often had negatives taken at a drugstore to supply 11 by 14 inch copies, or reductions; employed cut-outs, tracing and repeated elements where a picture seemed to require it. Although a poor draughtsman, Darger filled not only standard drawing pads with pictures, but at times expanded to joined sheets 3 to 4 feet high and reaching 10 to 12 feet long. Economy of material forced him to use both sides of a sheet. Prokopoff, noting Darger’s cramped quarters, concluded that he probably ‘worked in the manner of scroll painters — one segment at a time.’
[…] Some of the strengths of Darger’s work lies in a sound feel for general composition, and the marshalling of large ensembles in action. Here, Darger’s repeated use of the same template or tracing for reiterated figures often adds to the overall scene. At times there is a ‘chorus’ effect — adjacent figures guide a viewer’s response to a neighboring focus (a device well studied by art historian, E.H.Gombrich).
[…] The artwork is essentially linework with overlying color added, and Darger’s use of that color reflects the bright hues and filled contours of popular, commercial printing — cartoons, juvenile literature, and advertising. These were, after all, his mentors in art. But, much as in folk art, the decorative sense here is strong. Darger does orchestrate his disparate source materials and reveals a good eye in doing so. But again, this is native skill, and not an intended aesthetic rhetoric.
A prediction: the more outsider art becomes codified—the more it becomes “Outsider Art,” with established styles and traditions—the more predictable, and therefore the less interesting, it will become. (This is the same problem that experimental art “proper”—canonical “Experimental Art”—frequently encounters.)
When I first read Gravity’s Rainbow, I was astonished. I thought that Pynchon was the bee’s knees.
…Actually, and more honestly, I was terrified of Pynchon. I was overwhelmed by Gravity’s Rainbow, and by how good he was. How could one guy invent so much? And could I ever measure up as a writer, myself?
Later, when I read The Recognitions, I was so relieved to see just how much Pynchon had stolen from William Gaddis.
To this day, I absolutely hate the way Andy Kubert draws Wolverine:
Sorry, Andy Kubert. But I hate your weak sense of musculature, your sloppy proportions, your overall looseness… And even though Dan Green’s inking it—where are my beloved swaths of black???
My favorite thing to do at Thanksgiving (besides see my family) is to dig out and read my old comic books… In particular, rereading the first few issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (OK, the colorized First trade reprints) has become something of an annual tradition.
And when I sit down to draw (less frequently than I should), I usually end up doodling Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael…
(The first issue of TMNT was itself a parody of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Frank Miller’s Ronin and Daredevil, and Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants.)