"Ducks and Blossoming Branches"
Pencil and ink on paper
20 1/2 x 30 3/4 inches
In his recent review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of works on paper by the late Chinese artist Xie Zhiliu ("Tracing the Path to Chinese Finesse," New York Times, February 14, 2010), art critic Ken Johnson reminds readers that imitation is often a prerequisite for originality. Johnson's piece begins with a Western commonplace,
"Copying is bad; originality is good. That’s what we learn from toddlerdom on. In art as in life, be yourself. Don’t pretend. Nobody likes phonies, fakes or frauds. Forgery is illegal. Authenticity is holy.Or is there?
But wait. Copying and imitating have been the rule for most of the history of human civilization. In the West artists from Raphael to Picasso have profited from copying the works of others. In art there is no such thing as pure originality."
I suppose it depends on one's definition of originality. Having recently come under the intellectual sway of George Steiner, I wholeheartedly endorse the philosopher-critic's distinction between originality and novelty, detailed in his book Real Presences.
"Originality is antithetical to novelty. The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of 'inception' and of 'instauration,' of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings. In exact relation to their originality, to their spiritual-formal force of innovation, aesthetic inventions are 'archaic.' They carry in them the pulse of the distant source."Put another way, novelty is self-conscious invention or difference for the sake of invention or difference (that is, mere newness), whereas originality is an individual's expression of a primordial and universal resonance.
What better way to absorb the lessons of your predecessors (to better prepare yourself for originality) than by reproducing the work of those artists? More from Johnson's article:
"Maxwell K. Hearn, the exhibition’s organizer and a curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Met, explained in an interview that the show’s main significance is in what it reveals about methods used by traditional artists. It turns out that the kind of graceful naturalism that Xie achieved in his best works came not from extensive study of nature but by tracing over and over the works of other artists on sheets of semitransparent paper. [...] Repeatedly tracing the works of old masters as Xie did might be compared to a pianist practicing a composition by Bach. This may sound suffocating for a modern artist, but it is not unlike how many young artists learn to draw: by copying their favorite comic-book characters over and over."I was no exception. I spent countless teenage hours copying comic strips and, later, comic book characters. The graphic line and compositional sense that I learned from emulating those comic artists significantly informs my artwork today.
Johnson is correct, however; these ideas "may sound suffocating for a modern artist." That copying (a casual form of apprenticeship) might offend contemporary sensibilities is further evidence of the excesses of modernism and postmodernism. Too much was purged in the revolution of modern aesthetics; the rabble is today without coherence.
Fortunately, the art world is undergoing a sea change. The majority of artists under 40 years of age (and an increasing number of those over 40) do not mistake novelty of expression for originality, and they will readily acknowledge the value of copying, especially for the young artist. In fact, we realize the genuineness of Steiner's insistence that such activity is vital in all aesthetic disciplines.
"To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Johnson's term, 'ingestion,' is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a 'pace-maker' in the growth and vital complication of our identity.Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
[...] Accurate recollection and resort in remembrance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poem or sonata. In turn, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew)."