Mining the Past, Creating in the Present

Earlier this month, I spent a whirlwind weekend in the SF Bay Area, combining art exhibits, a film, and meetings. Although all different, they stimulated thoughts about originality, an issue that often arises in artistic circles: If I use cloth that someone else dyed or wove or embroidered, is my textile art not original? If the artist "copies" someone else's work but gives it a slightly different twist, is that plagiarism? Whose art is it anyway?

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

Jim Jarmusch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcUwxcbhtdQ

This all started with the film "Paterson." Curious about what was behind the story--the daily life of a bus driver who's also a poet--I decided to do an internet search. In the process of reading about the filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, I came across something he said in an interview:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don't bother concealing your thievery--celebrate it if you like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: "It's not where you take things from, it's where you take them to."

Godard's quote has stayed with me: What we do with what we've "taken," where we go with it, is what counts. After all, is there any subject matter for art that doesn't already exist? When it comes to what inspires us to create something new, we turn to the past and to perennial sources--nature, emotions, people, animals, ideas, beliefs, geometry, and so on. In a sense, it's like playing a piano. In an address presented on the occasion of his 2014 exhibition "Let the Games Begin," Gerhardt Knodel, fiber artist and former director at Cranbrook Academy of Art, said:

A piano offers eighty-eight keys to be played. Which ones to choose? Endless combinations have been explored, realms of melodies and harmonies and rhythms have been uncovered in that field of eighty-eight keys, but the appetite for pursuing the potential is not spoiled by what has been done before.

On the contrary, we mine from the past what captures our attention and fuels our creativity in the present.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Screened Icosahedral Lamp (2013), by Phil Webster; 3D-printed plaster composite with LED light.

Coincidental to my going to the movies, earlier in the day, I viewed "Reverberating Echoes: Contemporary Art Inspired by Traditional Islamic Art," curated by Carol Bier, at the Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley. In the show's title, notice the word "Inspired by" rather than "Designs Stolen from." The seven artists of diverse backgrounds draw upon an Islamic visual heritage, one which is not necessarily inherent in each one's personal history. Does that mean that they're appropriating from another culture, that they're copying the patterns of anonymous artists and artisans from the past? Or can we see their artwork as appreciation? The old adage, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," comes to mind. Two examples from the show follow.

Born in Michigan, conceptual artist Nazanin Hedayat Munroe has studied Persian art history. In the work below, she combines textiles that recall "the sheen, drapery, and translucency of silk, long cherished in the visual arts of Iran." She also references the poetry of Nizami (d. 1209) and Hafez (d. 1389). But clearly she has originated her own expression.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

"100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe. Textile and mixedmedia installation: hand-painted silk gown, dressmaker's form, thread, map pins, and poems of Hafez on cardstock.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Detail of "100 Destinies, 2015," by Nazanin Hedayat Munroe.

Chris Palmer, born in Pennsylvania, studied origami with Japanese masters and also visited the Alhambra (Moorish palace and fortress complex) in Spain. Using mathematical formulas, he explores the two distinct and ancient cultural traditions of tilings and tessellations by folding handmade paper and undyed silk to create lines and geometric patterns.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Whirlspools" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

"Shadowfold Zillij Dodecagrams" (2010) and "Shadowfold Zillij Octagrams" (1997), folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

Folded and pleated silk, uncut and undyed, (detail), by Chris Palmer.

[If you can get to Berkeley to see these works up close as well as those of the other artists, the exhibit runs until May 26.]

Then the latest member magazine from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) came in the mail and, once again, the question of inspiration and originality popped up. This time, it concerns two celebrated artists, one French, the other American. Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) first became obsessed with the art of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) when he was a student at Stanford University. As he put it, "Right there I made contact with Matisse, and it has just stuck with me all the way." Over time, Diebenkorn incorporated elements--both the how and the what to paint--that drew him to the French painter's oeuvre. The upcoming exhibition at SF MOMA includes about 100 paintings and drawings by both artists. When you look at two below, do you doubt originality? 

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"View of Notre Dame" (1914), by Henri Matisse. Museum of Modern Art, NY. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Notre-Dame

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

"Ocean Park #79 (1975), by Richard Diebenkorn. Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, Texas. ©The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn. Source: http://www.themodern.org/ocean-park-79

There are countless instances in which artists become enchanted and engaged with the art of another culture or a particular painter, sculptor, weaver, or ceramist. And why not? As American painter Lee Krasner (1908-1984) once said, "We are all influenced by other artists. Art brings about art." We come across things that others have made: We like the way they patterned the fabric. We're drawn to the mark-making or the combination of gems and metals or the thick brush strokes. We're dazzled by the geometrical pattern in a mosaic floor. If we then create something using those inspirations, is our work still original?
[see also 17 August 2014 post: exploringtheheartofit.weebly.com/blog/whats-original]

I look for understanding about this issue through a bit of etymology. The word "origin" is derived from the Latin oriri, to rise, and defined as "the point at which something begins or rises...something that creates, causes, or gives rise to another." By the 14th century, "original" meant "not secondary, derivative, or imitative" but "inventive; new." Since 1942, "originality" is construed as "freshness of aspect, design, or style; the power of independent thought or constructive imagination." Perhaps "constructive imagination" is the answer. Using what we chance upon, are drawn to, or find interesting, we use our imagination to construct something new, something that authentically originates from ourselves.

Questions and Comments:
What does originality mean to you?
If you find yourself wanting to use something from another artist, how do you make it your own?
What examples of blatant imitation, copying, or plagiarism come to mind? 

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.