Announcing the first annual Pink Bison Prize. Learn more here.

Learn More

Imitation or Inspiration?

Creative inspiration from the work of other artists is a difficult question because it is always present. Still, the degree of influence it has over an artist's work and the value it brings is challenging to pinpoint. Any artist with formal training or familiarity with art history (or even any artist who has been to a museum) will never be able to make work that is wholly uninfluenced by their peers or predecessors. And this is a good thing! Without the artistic exchange, Art History would be very boring. However, if all art were just copies of what came before it, Art History would be equally dull. So, when does constructive inspiration become repetitive derivativeness?

Reacting to other artists' work either positively or negatively is necessary for a healthy artistic practice. To fight the feeling of inspiration when confronted with a hitherto unfamiliar work of art would be foolish and counterproductive. Inspiration is the backbone of creativity, and an opportunity for it should never be passed up (I mean, Andy Warhol got it from soup can advertisements, and his body of work is now among the most original and important in the history of art). Artists are well aware of this, and I have yet to encounter one who claims to be uninfluenced by others. In fact, significant change and progress in art are always a direct product of responding to the work of others. Impressionism was a reaction to the centuries of illusionism that preceded it. Ironically, painting would never have changed if artists had not felt the need to react against the predominant art of their time. Whether one follows or breaks the rules, one is still influenced by the rules. What would be the point of artists exhibiting their work, peer reviews, or interviews if all creative production was supposed to be kept in a vacuum?

However, there is a point where inspiration turns into imitation. Often it is easier to notice this change in the context of many artists' work instead of a single artist's oeuvre. Take Banksy, for example. Looking at street art over the last ten years, I think it is obvious that hordes of young artists have closely replicated Banksy's style. This copy-and-paste approach to creativity is life-sucking and boring because it is not an inventive ode, the next step in an investigation started by another, or a provocative critique but simply a regurgitation of an established and tired aesthetic. It is not worth making if the work does not bring anything new to the table. However, this does not mean a work has to be wildly different to be worthwhile or that all significantly different works are valuable.

Sometimes the closest visual imitations are stunningly original. Conceptual artist, Sturtevant is known for almost exactly replicating other artists’ work. You can place one of her portraits of Marylin Monroe next to Warhol’s, and only the very trained eye would know the difference. Her work is not derivative for a host of reasons, but the most important one is simple: no one thought of it before. Of course, being the first does not necessarily translate into being good. Were I to think hard enough, I could probably come up with some idiotic thing that would be new but utterly meaningless. She raises fascinating questions about the meaning of originality, how we see and process information, and ownership. Her work is far from easy; it requires the viewer to think deeply about the entire history of art and how we make value judgments about it. Pablo Picasso would never have painted his breakthrough, and insanely influential works of the 1900s were it not for the influence of African sculpture. So, Sturtevant's work is not a radical departure from creative norms but simply a more drastic instantiation of them.

At the end of the day, this is all subjective. What I think is derivative, someone else might think original. No art is going to be devoid of influence, so the question becomes, what else does it bring to the table? It does not matter how an artist finds their voice; it just matters if they have one.


!piece @user #hashtag