We talk about art being derivative. Or at least we talk that way when we do not like it. When we like a piece of art we talk about how it was inspired by others’ works. It is not imitation. I think these two reactions are emotional gut-checks on essentially the same phenomenon facing creativity. I believe creativity is a virus– creativity can infect others, induce them to write, to paint, to sculpt, to sing. And yet we seem to approach that fact with mixed emotions. We complain that our creativity is being copied at the same time we become excited that someone has thought so much of what we have created to do something themselves.
One of my favorite expressions of this paradox is– unsurprisingly– from an artist. These lyrics are from U2’s song, “The Fly” from their 1991 album, Achtung Baby.
It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief
Critics lionized Achtung Baby as a thorough and effective reinvention for the band. About the album Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “The crashing, unrecognizable distorted guitars that open “Zoo Station” are a clear signal that U2 have traded their Americana pretensions for postmodern, contemporary European music.” “The Fly” was the first single culled from the album. Bono said in an interview for the book U2 at the End of the World, “I always felt like ‘The Fly’ was this phone call from Hell, but the guy likes it there! Honey, I know it’s hot here, but I like it!”
Is it a stereotype to think of artists as tortured? Is that torture the pain felt when the very artistic nature– the double-edge paradox sword– twists? Twists deep in the gut. I think it is. I also think that artistic creativity is not a binary concept. It is not an either/or. I am not either artistic or non-artistic. Nor are you. I believe it is a facet of being human– Hell, if Aristotle is right about language and humanity, I can make a strong case that language is artistry. Any language, all language. I concede that some language is more artistic than others– more creative. Repetition is not necessarily anathema to creativity. Music thrives on repetition; architecture demands it. What about the written word? Telling the same story is universally derided. Or at least telling the same story the same way– telling a familiar story in a new way is often lauded. Clichés are formed through repetition to the extent that the conclusion of the phrase can be anticipated by the prelude.
So avoid clichés. Right. Got it.
But that doesn’t help me. I still am struggling with this paradox about derivation and inspiration. If we take the former description as negative and the latter as positive what other criteria can we use to distinguish the two? I already said clichés. Clichés are derived not inspired. What else?
I believe a change in media is a good criterion: a painting inspired by a poem, a novel inspired by a building, a song inspired by a sculpture. The troublesome counterexample is cinema inspired by literature. We often compare these two art forms with similar criteria. Oh. That. Well you know the book was so much better. Derivative. Comparing one form of the story to another is intriguing. I remember a seminar my freshman year in college that consisted entirely of modern versions of the Arthurian legends. We read Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, T. H. White, and several other authors I no longer remember. That failure to remember is mine, not theirs.
I do not have much more to say on the Arthur seminar other than that I was reminded of it as one of the first examples of where I had seriously compared two versions of the same story against one another. I suppose that is what college should do: introduce you to new thought, or new ways to look at previous thought. I have had a couple more similar experiences– ones that inspired this bit of writing, in fact– recently. They both have to do with Stephen King.
I recently read Stephen King’s novel, Roadwork. I recommend it. King describes some of his thoughts about the novel in his essay “Why I Was Bachman”. He says, “I think it was an effort to make some sense of my mother’s painful death the year before – a lingering cancer had taken her off inch by painful inch. Following this death I was left both grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of it all… Roadwork tries so hard to be good and find some answers to the conundrum of human pain.” King is unapologetic about incorporating his life into his writing. Write what you know, he says. For him that does not mean a chronicle of the minutiae and tedium of daily life. Rather he encourages you to grab hold of those elements of the world that do move you and set them down on paper as a story.
I am meandering off my point. King is also unapologetic about incorporating bits and pieces from other works of art– usually stories and music. In Roadwork, he repeatedly refers to the Rolling Stones album, Let It Bleed. The album shows up in several places in the story, particularly at times when Barton Dawes grieves over the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage. He plays the record. Over and over again. When I finished the story and got my own copy of the album and played it through. I began to see connections between various songs and various developments in the story. Parts fit. The opening two songs: “Gimme Shelter”, “Love in Vain”. The late night wandering: “Midnight Rambler”. A desperate plan for revenge, “You Got the Silver”. — And the fatalist truism of the final cut: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Other elements fit, too. Not just the title tracks, but tempo and energy and feeling.
Did Let It Bleed inspire Roadwork? What other connections exist between on piece of art and another? What layers of meaning do those connections present?
The second connection has to do with the television series, LOST and Stephen King. The creators of LOST are big fans of Stephen King. They are fans of quite a bit of contemporary popular culture. Star Wars is another example. There are references to both King and Star Wars in dozens of places. I am a fan of all three, LOST, Stephen King and Star Wars. In the first section of the On Writing, King talks about writing as telepathy. Writing allows an author to talk to someone across both space and time. Granted, this is a one-way communication. But the idea is that a writer can convey his exact meaning to someone who is separated from him by thousands of miles and hundreds of years. If he has done his job right. To illustrate this concept, King goes on to describe a rabbit in a cage with the number eight spray-painted on its back. It is a short description, perhaps a hundred words. King talks about the brevity of his telepathic imagery– about what parts of the description are important and what parts are not. The goal is for the reader to focus on that number eight.
In scene from the LOST episode “Every Man for Himself”, Ben shows Sawyer a rabbit. Sawyer has been beaten into unconsciousness and tortured. (Whirl says that she waits for that one scene in every episode of LOST— that one scene where someone beats on Sawyer. She loves that.) When Sawyer awakens, his captors lay a cage on his stomach. There is a rabbit in the cage. The rabbit has the number eight spray painted on its back. The scene continues. Sawyer questions what is going on– as you would! Ben explains while shaking the rabbit in the cage. He frightens the rabbit. The rabbit panics and falls still. Ben tells Sawyer the rabbit had a pacemaker in him, and that so does Sawyer. He is told if his heart rate exceeds a certain threshold his heart will explode. Just like the rabbit. Telepathy.
I love the interconnectedness of these creative works– these works of art. I love the complexity of the message and the breadth of scope the creators are able to provide.
There may not be honor among thieves, but there is certainly beauty.