Do Copycats Make Better Art?

Years ago at an artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks I met a young painter who found his source material in crowd photographs from magazines. Tracing the heads and shoulders gave him patterns for abstract paintings that retained the ghostly suggestion of masses of people. When not on retreat, he worked as an assistant to a prominent painter who made museum-scale landscapes of scenes often recognizable from the Hudson River School. For a flourish, there were handwritten messages in the plowed fields or the forest fringes as if to say that this artist was too smart to settle for paintings as mere illusions. He made art about art. The young assistant made art from media imagery. I wondered: why not step outside to paint the Adirondacks for yourself? Why not dare to be original?

For years, I remained skeptical of art’s self-absorption. Paintings that referenced paintings. Poems that invoked myths. Rather than ingratiating myself in tradition, I believed in responding to my own life experiences. I wanted to document the insights that occurred to me from my encounters with the world, not from what I’d read in books. Life is big and unruly and full of surprises. Art is someone else’s discovery. I wanted to write what no one else had to say because they hadn’t been there with me. Then everything changed. I happened to sit through a deadly dull community theater production of a living room WASPs embittered by too many cocktails drama. Hell, I thought, I could write a better play. I’d add a zombie in a blue blazer just like my brother. Back home I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time in years which inspired me to write poems conflating my childhood family with the fictional world of the movie. Mashing up the two relieved me of the burden of autobiography to imagine scenes filled with dark humor and the twisted love that zombies express, albeit cannibalistic and insatiable.

The Zombie Gene

I see it in the way my brother drives 45
on the highway, a company messenger
despite his master’s degree. Entering rooms,
he no longer turns on the lights, just sits
in the dusk furrowing his brow. The winter
our mother died he walked at the beach
& pronounced himself cured. I wish

I could drive a tire iron through his forehead,
puncture his lethargy, release his ambition.
Instead, he still lives with Dad & nags him
over TV dinners to take blood pressure pills.
Late night in the den where we first watched
Night of the Living Dead, they now revere
Charlie Rose interviews. They don’t understand;

in their back yard, deafening crickets mask
the slobbering chewing of a zombie
still wearing her old tennis dress for gardening.
I feed her my heart she never stops eating.

Everyone loves zombies, or so it seemed from my audiences’ reactions. Invoking Night of the Living Dead, even for those who hadn’t seen the movie, gave them a cultural reference point outside of my own personal universe. I learned what promoters, marketers, and other artists have always know: the public loves to see the familiar upturned. Many of the greats have been wantonly borrowing from the culture forever, it seems. Shakespeare didn’t think up his own stories. Bob Dylan’s early albums announced him as a songwriter unlike any other, yet his first five dozen songs can be traced back to earlier songs that he’d immersed himself in during his folk music apprenticeship. Copying no longer seemed like such a sin. I became enamored with the practices of borrowing and referencing that happened all around me, from collage to hip hop to the zombie revolution.

A prime example is Liz Phair’s double album from 1993, Exile in Guyville, done in reply to the Rolling Stones’s double album, Exile on Main Street. As she told an interviewer:

“What I did was go through [the Stones album] song by song. I took the same situation, placed myself in the question, and answered the question. ‘Rocks Off’–my answer to that is ‘Six Foot One.’ It’s taking the part of the woman that Mick’s run into on the street. ‘Let it Loose’–okay, that’s about this woman who comes into the bar, she’s got some new guy on her arm, Mick was in love with her. He’s watching this guy, ‘eh, just wait, she’s gonna knock you down.’ He’s talking, ‘let it loose,’ as if to be like, babe, what the hell happened, talk to me. So my answer was, ‘I want to be your…’ I put a song in there that lets it loose… [All the lyrics on the album] either had to be the equivalent from a female point of view or it had to be an answer kind of admonishment, to let me tell you my side of the story.”

When Mick Jagger sings in “Rocks Off:”

I’m always hearing voices on the street,
I want to shout, but I can’t hardly speak.
I was making love last night
to a dancer friend of mine.
I can’t seem to stay in step,
’cause she come ev’ry time that she pirouettes over me.
But I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming,
I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.
I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed.

Liz Phair replies in “6’1″:”

I bet you fall in bed too easily
With the beautiful girls who are shyly brave
And you sell yourself as a man to save
But all the money in the world is not enough

As Gina Arnold describes in her book, Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair released her album as an indie rocker from Chicago at the age of twenty-five. Instead of replying to the indie music geeks who surrounded her in their Wicker Park neighborhood, the guys who m she has described with “short, cropped hair, John Lennon glasses, flannel shirts,” and a possessive interest in “guy things–comic books with really disfigured, screwed-up people in them,” she tackled their heroes, the Rolling Stones, and lifted her imagination out of the self-absorption that can make our own lives seem so limiting.

In an aside in his book, My Dyslexia, the poet Philip Schultz describes a teaching technique:

“When I first started teaching college in the mid-seventies I noticed that nearly all of my poetry and fiction students were using the same autobiographical ‘I’ (or ‘me’) they used to write their diaries, journals, and letters. These narrators were stand-ins for themselves and allowed them little or no distance from their characters. Once they understood that writers like Salinger, Philip Roth, and Chekhov used invented narrators–with attitudes and dilemmas different from their own–there was a remarkable improvement in their work.

“When I discovered that my most persuasive narrators were the ones whose personal agendas and attitudes were most different from my own, I started ‘borrowing’ narrators from my favorite writers.” From Chekhov he took the voice of a “curiously self-obsessed busybody” to write about his own experiences of working in a welfare office to produce a poem that took flight, whereas hundreds of pages of previous efforts to write a novel and a play about this sad mad house in his own voice had fallen flat. His poem, “Balance,” begins:

Eight years gone & the welfare building is a parking ramp.
The attendant can’t recall where it went. Uptown somewhere, he thinks.
But ten thousand people filled those halls & only the ocean
is a carpet big enough to sweep so many under.

I was a clerk who read Chekhov & knew the fate of clerks….

Maybe copying others leads us to a more assured understanding of ourselves.

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