Monday, June 04, 2007

Curious about Imitation: Is It Good or Bad? Helpful and Useful or a “Cop Out”?

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” - Herman Melville, American novelist

The human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being only becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.” - Theodor Adorno, German philosopher

The subject of “imitation” is definitely a curious one. The great artists of all time started by imitating the masters. Even today, when visiting art museums, we see students working diligently to imitate the works of well-known artists. This is a form of learning techniques, and also, I submit to you, getting somewhat inside the minds and feelings of those artists.

Motivators and self-help gurus suggest that we model the successful. Find out how they achieved what they did and have, and then follow their steps. Proponents of Neuro Linguistic Programming even suggest that we take on the physical attributes by “matching and mirroring” others.

The tapes and CDs I purchase for my fitness classes contain music and vocals that sound like the originals, but are being performed by excellent imitators. Students ask all of the time if the music is well done imitation - yes, it is also noted on the information that accompanies them.

What can we learn from imitation? And, is it bad? When I started looking at the experts’ quotations, I found a wide range of thoughts and feelings. Here are some:
  • Imitation is being rewarded. They're learning that if you fit right in the mold, you get rewarded. Music is no longer a form of expression - it's a means to a lifestyle.” - Mike Watt, American musician
  • The worst acting is about imitation.” - Paul Guilfoyle, American actor
  • By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” - Confucius, Chinese philosopher
  • Imitation, if it is not forgery, is a fine thing. It stems from a generous impulse, and a realistic sense of what can and cannot be done.” - James Fenton, British poet
  • Originality is nothing by judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.” - Voltaire, French writer
  • I think we always move from imitation to assimilation to innovation, but I can't name you 20 people outside those we've already recognized who ever got to point three: innovation.” - David Baker, American composer
  • To refrain from imitation is the best revenge.” - Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman royalty

How do you feel about imitation? Don’t all of us imitate almost unconsciously? We are constantly bombarded with new ideas and thoughts. How many of these settle with us and become what we may feel are unique with us? It is a curious thought. I feel that if we know we are imitating and try to pass it off as our own original work, it is a “cop out.”

A few quotations for you to consider this coming week:

  • Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing.” - Aesop, Greek author
  • When I was a child I learned by imitation as the rest did. I have gone on copying models in my poor way ever since.” - Josiah Royce, American philosopher
  • Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those who we cannot resemble.” - Samuel Johnson, English author
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” - Fred Allen, American comedian

Have a great week!