An artist friend of mine, after reading the answers regarding the questions on Installation Art and Style raised by Vineesh Vijayan, asked another interesting question. Though she does not want to be named here she has a special request for me that I should answer her question. So I quote her question first and then try to answer it. It goes like this: There are some artists who repeat themselves; they become so addicted to their own works and do not look elsewhere for inspiration or influence. Is that a problem?
An artist copying another artist formally, technically or conceptually is an act plagiarism. There is a difference between plagiarism and reference. When you acknowledge the source of your image or statement, it becomes a reference, while you hide the source and present it as your own, it becomes plagiarism. Remember, even if you feel that an image that you have lifted from obscure part of the world and think that none will come to know about it, you will be proven wrong, if not today, tomorrow because we are living in an image saturated world. This innocent ‘lifting’ of image was quite a rampant practice during the hay days of mediatic realism aka photorealism. There used to be embarrassing moments during the art openings as people get to see some image used in the same way by two different artists who also differ in their stature and reach. Artists used to have special folders in their computers and their sophisticated cell phones that contained the ‘original’ images that their close friends were working on at that time. This used to be a cruel time pass amongst artists.
(The Kiss by Rodin)
I will tell you a story. An artist did a sculpture that showed a mule being hurled up in the air thanks to the weight of the load that it was pulling. Some sort of steadiness and stiffness was infused in the modelling of the mule in its posture of being suspended in the air. Soon his friends worked an extra shift to find out the original image of reference and it was from some Middle East artist. Slowly, our artist also came to know that his friends too were having the image of his reference. So while exhibiting the work, for a change he laid the mule down on the floor rather than hurling it up in the air. It worked well but after a few seconds of viewing one thought why the mule was so stiff while lying on the floor; it looked like a frozen corpse straight from a cold storage. There were hush-hush talks everywhere. But as you know the modelling of the mule was done on a different context and the way it got displayed was different.
I know I have digressed a bit here. Let me come to the point. To answer my friend’s question, I would consider the material and spiritual circumstances that facilitate the act of copying oneself. An artist copies his or her own works in the following circumstances. First of all sculptures, graphic prints, digital works, photographs, videos and so on could be done on limited editions. In these genres the artists deliberately allow making multiples of the same work. However, the question of originality does not arise here. Though technically speaking we could say that A or B was the ‘original’ and the rest are the editions, we cannot say for sure that which one copies the other. There is an aspect of simulacrum involved in it- a situation that facilitates copies without original. Technically, again we could say that the original is the mother mould/etching plate/raw file and so on. Here though artist ‘copies’ his works within the ethics of ‘copying’, it is not ‘copying’ him/herself.
(Narcissus by Caravaggio)
Secondly, artists copy their own works or works that look very similar to the other because of some sort of narcissism. Artists, irrespective of their mediums, are narcissists. They like to see certain aspects of their works repeated in most of their works. At times, they repeat the same image, at times they repeat the same concept and at other times they repeat certain ‘signs’ which could signify the presence of the author. Here the artist makes a replication of his or her own self through these acts. We could say that artists are intensely in love with each other at times verging into pathological modes, and they tend to repeat themselves, which obviously is a trap if not handled carefully.
The third situation is a sort of desperation and dissatisfaction. Artists are great perfectionists. They could be shabby in appearance but like Hamlet’s madness, their shabbiness too is methodical. They want their works to be perfect. And each time they do a work, a sort of repletion happens. They want it to be pushed more and more towards this abstract notion of perfection. It stems from the feeling that their works are not expressive enough to say what they have been trying to say through it. This dissatisfaction could lead to self repetition.
(A scene from Nostalgia by Tarkovsky)
The fourth aspect of copying oneself without heeding to the movements elsewhere is sheer nostalgia. When someone feels a lot about the past works and keep revisiting those works and bring back the elements and motifs from the past works, we could say that the artist is a prisoner of his own past. It is not a wrong thing to be attached to one’s own past. But there should be occasions of detaching oneself away from the clutches of the past and intensely live in the present. This artistic present does not mean living in the temporality of present, instead I would say that an artist living in the contemporary times and intensely understanding its nuances developed through historical evolutions. This is a positive nostalgia. That means, one artist could think about a 17th century painter and get inspired and could avoid looking at the contemporary artists for inspiration. Such nostalgia comes as a part of the research that an artist does on his personal level.
The fifth context of self repetition is sheer felicity. For example, I have understood artists like Ramkinkar Baij, Nandlal Bose, Benod Behair Mukherjee, Picasso and many other modernists used to be very passionate sketchers. They kept on sketching things. They go to some places or perhaps to the same place every day and sketch that place or people. It is neither nostalgia nor passion for perfection. It is the artist’s perennial interest in showing his inborn skills in a very natural way. Fish swim in water and birds fly in the air. Swimming and flying are quite natural to them. Birds fly not just for preying. They fly like Jonathan Livingston, the seagull, who fly for sheer joy. The artists who sketch the same place in the same way or with a different passion are like Jonathan Livingston, the seagull. They cannot do without it. Look at the innumerable landscape sketches by Baij or the artist and model series by Picasso. They could not have done without that. This is a kind of self repetition but it is not copying. They open themselves up to a different world by doing it.
(Artist and Model by Picasso)
An artist becoming complacent by copying his own images and shutting himself out of the world of other creativity and influences is a tragedy and farce at the same time. Often artists do repeat themselves because the market wants it to be like that (I have discussed it in my previous blog). If you ask me which kind of self repetition I prefer, I would say I am Jonathan Livingston the Seagull.