This blog is stolen

How original are you?

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… from the BBC’s Arts Editor actually – Will Gompertz.  Or, more accurately, it’s copied.  You see, Gompertz has written a small book called Think like an Artist in which he draws together common threads of what makes some people brilliantly creative, prolific and original.  He reckons we can all adopt what they do.

So let’s focus on originality in this blog – or the lack of it.  How original are you?  Will Gompertz cites American psychiatrist, Albert Rothenberg, who’s spent decades studying creativity.  And Rothenberg has identified how original thoughts come about.  They occur, he says, when we encourage our brain to combine two or more apparently random elements in a fresh way.  These elements will be a mixture of old and new.

No such thing as originality?

Gompertz observes that for this reason creative geniuses have often stressed that ‘originality in a completely pure form doesn’t really exist’.  There’s always somebody else’s earlier creativity in there first – but now surprisingly being put alongside something new.  Isaac Newton famously said, ‘If I’ve seen further it is by standing on the shoulder of giants’ which Albert Einstein modified to ‘creativity is knowing how to hide your sources’.

Linked to this is Picasso’s comment that ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’.  At first sight he seems to be making a clear contrast between two categories of people – good artists and great ones but actually he’s not talking about two different categories of people at all.  Rather he’s talking about the process of how one single person goes from being a good artist to being a great one.  And that journey necessarily begins with copying other people, whether you’re ‘a ballet dancer or a structural engineer’.

Picasso before he was Picasso

Copying involves getting the basics sorted out, learning the subject, the techniques, the complexities.  Gompertz uses the example of Picasso himself.  In June 1901, before he was famous, Picasso put on his first major art show in Paris.  He painted sixty new canvases specially.  They were remarkable for the huge variety of styles he was copying.  There was Goya in there, El Greco, Velazquez, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne and others besides.  Will Gompertz remarks that it was the exhibition of a ‘very talented impersonator’, a good artist but certainly not a great one.

And Picasso knew it.  And it wasn’t enough for him.  He wanted to become Picasso.  And for that he knew he had to steal.

Stealing versus copying

In the words of Gompertz:

‘Copying requires some skill but zero imagination.  No creativity is required. …. Stealing is an altogether different matter.  To steal is to possess.  And taking possession of something is a much bigger undertaking – the item becomes your responsibility; its future is in your hands’.

So where, he asks, could Picasso ‘take Van Gogh’s expressionism, Toulouse-Lautrec’s subject matter, Degas’s bold contours and Gauguin’s colour blocking?’  Well, pain came to the rescue.  Picasso was deeply traumatized by the suicide of a close friend, Carlos Casagemas.  Coincidentally Picasso’s distress was increased by a visit  to a women’s prison in Paris where the misery of inmates with their children and others suffering from syphilis deepened his depression.  The desire to do something new with the ideas he’d stolen from the other artists collided ‘with an artist who was feeling decidedly blue’.  And that’s where the transformation happened.

Picasso is born

‘He suddenly knew exactly where he wanted to take the innovations of all those great artists from the past.  The bold lines, the blocked colour and the expressive manner all still had a place, but not in the form employed by his predecessors.  He simplified, toned down, merged and cooled.  He turned the colour dial to blue and the mood to maudlin’.

Thus Picasso’s Blue Period was born.  From now on the style was his.  Incredibly, as Gompertz says, ‘here was a teenage artist who had gone from a copyist to a master in a month’.  To mark the new confidence and identity, he began signing his paintings ‘Picasso’ without the initials he’d used before.

It can’t be rushed

So that’s an example of probably the greatest single creative faculty we human beings have – the ability to bring together ‘our experiences, influences, knowledge and feelings into one, unified, original entity’.  It can’t be forced because the work that our conscious and unconscious minds do to get this result happens over time, when we’re awake and when we’re sleeping, when we’re concentrating on the matter and when we’re distracted.  Somewhere connections are made and all the dots are joined up.  ‘What feels like divine inspiration’, Gompertz writes, ‘is actually instinct’.

The benefits of disruption

Elsewhere, he also says that the ‘new’ element in this process often comes when a disruption in a person’s life has happened – be it moving home, changing jobs, experiencing conflict or, as in Picasso’s case, undergoing heartbreak.

So if you too are looking for an original creative breakthrough, the next time your life is disrupted on a grand scale it just could provide the gateway for the hidden wheels and cogs to start turning.  Even feeling lousy could be an opportunity.

I like Will Gompertz’s book.  And I’m going to do a bit more copying from it in the next couple of blogs.

©  Brian Shand 2020

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Brian Martin Shand

I have considerable professional experience in mental health settings, having worked both in the NHS and in private practice. I am one of the very few trained and qualified group psychotherapists in private practice in Surrey. I also offer individual therapy and counselling. Please see my website for more details.

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