The image of the lone artist, toiling away in isolation in a solitary studio may be more of a romantic idea than actuality. Other than painters, sculptors and poets or novelists, all various kinds of art-makers need others to make their art—musicians to play, actors to act, dancers to dance, craftsmen to build, etc.
Last night I sat in a local theater and watched a film of a play (film of a play, I know, weird) being performed at the newly renovated Garrick Theater in London. The visually sumptuous details of the lovingly restored 100+ year-old theater were on screen prior to the start of The Winter’s Tale. During those ten minutes or so of Kenneth Branagh’s silky-voiced descriptions my imagination led to Shakespeare, the artist and his art. I was struck by how many people have been involved in bringing Shakespeare to life for over 400 years.
My image of him is from the movie Shakespeare in Love—a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, passionate, emotional man, sometimes inspired, sometimes not, always behind and often writing onstage with the help of his acting company. Yes, genius came from his pen, but various words, phrases and ideas were often supplied by others. And the publication of the folios were the efforts of his colleagues who also did some editing. So what we see and hear now is not only interpreted, but was not 100% his to begin with. Does that diminish him as an artist?
Realizing that this greatest of all wordsmiths had the aid of colleagues and supporters during his lifetime, after his lifetime and all the way to the present, I started thinking about the painters who, despite the romantic ideal, were definitely not always working alone in isolation: Braque and Picasso developed Cubism together; Vlaminck, Derain and Matisse painted side by side in their fishing boats, their work echoing each other’s; Cassatt and Degas painted in the studio and worked on the same plates for the printing presses; Warhol and Basquiat; etc., etc. These were brilliant creators who, despite their ego requirements, cared more about the pursuit of discovery than an overblown sense of their own originality. Matisse and Picasso, almost in dialogue, interpreted each other for years, respectively in their own language.
Before the modern era, every prominent painter had assistants who did more than just mix paints. Many, many painters throughout history employed apprentices to do much of the brushwork and who knows exactly where their work starts and stops.
So how do we think about this idea of creativity and originality in art-making?
The pursuit of art is the pursuit of truth—one’s own truth, that is not wholly known. But we seek the glittering shards of it and piece them together. Contributions by others sifted through our own, one-of-a-kind filters can underwrite originality. The endeavor is about discovery and understanding, leading to more discovery. It’s not about some idea of originality born divinely out of the ether. Information is not originality, information is not wisdom, information is not knowledge. Information in the form of advice or opinion, or a touch, or an idea is simply a tip for formulating the questions.
Art isn’t a destination it’s a progression. And a remnant of a map left on the road with a few clues doesn’t make the journey invalid. Tell either Picasso or Matisse that their plate of lemons is other than art. Or tell Rembrandt that The Night Watch isn’t great because of his apprentice’s hand.
Whatever your personal philosophy is, or however your work takes shape, It’s the authentic pursuit that will speak to the viewer. If you believe in that and trust that your voice will emerge regardless of any helping hand used to get through the wobbly parts, your work will ultimately be original.
Borrow and, as Picasso, one of the most original of creators, says, steal. It’s all fair in service of discovering your own voice.