Art and Music      
Christopher Ward London


Imitation? Oh Christ!

HALLER:  "Does anybody need another million dollar movie? Does anybody need another million dollar star?" Lou Reed, ‘Strawman’ (from the album New York, 1989)

Imitation, humankind's chameleonic tool for merging with the crowd - or rising above it - will soon be all that is left of culture.

Once we become the hybrid machine-people of the near future, and our brains run on batteries recharged by solar filaments in hi-tech-toupees, invention is not going to be an option. The best we'll be able to do is to call on those electric sheep in our android dreams... and watch them sing, dance and, since they are all alike, be counted.

But we may not need to turn into androids to see the desolation - we are already doing a pretty good job of shovelling originality to the bottom of the heap.

We instinctively imitate in order to learn. Then as we acquire survival luggage, our imitation acquires sophistication. It is something that is considered evolutionarily beneficial at the very least. 

Imitation has been creeping around Art like a poisonous vine for so long that Art hardly notices it anymore. But Art should wake up, at least for the sake of an experiment to see what new colours and shapes we might get if imitation was unmercifully blackballed from the club.

Whether it's Hugh Laurie doing blues or another nymphette pumping cock-sucking vowels from her gym-tuned diaphragm in front a cage of sebaceous replicants, imitation - in so much as it is sold and construed as the product of art and artists - does no favours to the few who strive to break new ground or those who, at the very least, make a serious effort to develop what is already there and not just give used material a re-spray.

Imitation has its positives. Through it, ideas are conveyed and movements created. It may be that the original that is imitated is of a certain value and its reproduction serves to expand consciousness and further quality. That could be good for society.

But could this precious bane be rendering our brains the producers of nothing but repetition and stultiloquence? If efforts were made to detoxify culture by marginalising the products of purely imitational art and entertainment, could our senses and our minds produce and feast upon a new flow of innovation and originality? Perhaps someone should work out an online system of downgrading the creative content of clichéd, clapped out material, a cultural update of the red cross painted on plague victims' doors?

Since the development of the printing press - no doubt one of the engines to which we owe our educational development - man has possessed the means to copy thought and run off duplicates of it in the minds of millions. In the hands of dull imitators, most of whom have sought nothing more than profit from its use, this tool and its successors have strengthened imitation as a controller of communication and an obstacle of free-thought.

The Bible, that great monument to the repetition of simple notions is most definitely one of the 'sinful' originals that continues to stamp a mystically shining, yet hackneyed code into our cerebral jelly. For centuries, the 'good book' has served as a script to turn to for hordes of imitators in need of authority for their manipulative spectacles. Leaving aside the question of the literary or academic worth of the rambling words it holds, its chief role has proved to have been its custody of a resonating, inanely looped tone of enquiry and response regarding man's primitive doubts and fears. That these doubts and fears still remain has much to do with the way in which this tone has been used and kept alive by those who have upheld the circulation and authority of the book. It is a tone materialised and maintained by the yawning chasms of church architecture built to dwarf the importance of our homes and secular lives. Ritualised by unnaturally unhurried pomp and ceremony, the tone has rung through plastic Jesuses on dashboards that trumped even General Motors totems. It has been imitated so conscientiously it has managed to reverberate in the cloth of sew-on 'I Love Jesus' patches and the paper of papal marketing, ever eliciting a response to calls from generations of doom-mongering impressionists of such a pervasive and frightening tone. Now it wants to burn its equally tired rivals.

Art is infested with imitators, and always has been. With nothing less than life itself to imitate in the beginning, it started with an inexhaustible source. As styles developed and became evident, they were imitated and multiplied, to the point in the 20th century where we got to pavement paintings of Constables and Van Goghs on pinheads. The art of filmmaking, which has always had an occult, parallel strand dedicated to experiment beyond mere storytelling, is known by the majority for its national industries based on little more than calculated imitation of style, tone, format, etc., and all with the same intent: to make money.

The 20th century might be a good historical space in which to see where imitation began to serve profit at a faster rate than any of the useful applications it offers mankind in terms of social advancement, self-esteem, practice for future innovators, the dissemination of ideas, technique, and styles. The explosion of the advertising industry brought imitations to millions daily. As part of a savage selling process, imitating the known and the unknown became one of copywriters' most employed tools. 100 and more years on, this evolved mercenary arm of the art of persuasion has done more than anything to spread the virus of imitation, authorising and guaranteeing it for public use as we copy in efforts to impress, break the ice, swindle, insult, pervert, scare, encourage, fascinate, endear, and even rear a successor generation of imitators. (How many successful jokes in cringe humour shows play on efforts like the Office boss David Brent to boost his image and win friends? How did cringe humour become so quickly repeated it lost its appeal?) Imitation breeds and dilutes ideas, and this is at least noticed by minds sharpened to seek cutting edge art and entertainment. But on an hourly basis, millions of us are pitching repeats of what we've seen in a tussle that depends on our ability to imitate and our interlocutors' strength to shut us up.

In music, imitation rules OK. Oh, I'm off to see a band. Another blues band. They play good blues, they do... they imitate a style and, if we're lucky, they add some hue or cry we have never heard before - but on top of a chord formula and adhering to all manner of copied elements without which most of the audience would feel defrauded. It's not just Oasis making a noise like the Beatles, or young savvy bands making a noise like Joy Division (and was it Joy Division painting something wonderful on top of a noise like Pere Ubu?). Everyone who still remains inside the floating deadwood hulk that was once the music industry knows it has been decayed by easy money formulas based on imitation, which allow for seemingly endless replicants to fuel the soundalike and lookalike money-maker machine. Two millions invested, four million the return - this is good business.

Wanting more of the same, i.e. repeating comfortable acquaintanceships with the known, makes us humans captive audiences. In the cheaper seats, fame is enough to sell as music if it comes in the form of another sexy girl; up in the gallery the toffee-nosed seek association with a different kind of imitation, the expensive sounding vowels of opera, for example, from a highly trained voice and in luxurious settings. Somewhere in the middle is the levitated corpse of rock music, which long ago ceased being a new story, something with a waking edge. The sound of arrival had already become an ageing and quaint hotel guest before U2 appeared. From the outset the group was as seminal as a pair of army camouflage pants, but it must be one of the most rounded examples music has ever had of a purely imitational product. Bono and co. have done imitation perhaps better than any. Rather than copy one particular sound or image, they had it in them to press into one package all the dead and flaky material that had fallen off rock during its ebb into inert and weightless gimcrackery and distil this into an essence, a kind of gas of rock. To do this so young was masterful manipulation of the desire for more of the same. Bono's leather-wrapped bounding and shouting proved to be instant hubris in a jar - just add a crescendo of electric semi-coherence and a few obvious phallomorphic stage shapes and the individual hubris switches on the collective hubris with Viagra-like efficiency. They really do deserve, as the greatest pretenders, all of those awards given by the industry for achievements in imitation. 

However, the power and the prevalence of imitation in our lives today could not have been generated without the help of a media composed chiefly of imitators. In journalism, this little meme has created information processing that collects live truth and then suffocates it in a box that has been passed from owner to owner and has never been cleaned. The majority of people who practise journalism are capable of looking inside the box when it is given to them, but they do not investigate. Restricted by the formulaic demands of the successful media organisations who hand out the boxes, reporters and writers just chuck everything in the same old container. Through a learned step-by-step process of imitating what other journalists do, each one comes to rely on a template for reporting information. It is called telling a story, but as with the worst storytellers, information becomes a tired tale repeated with a few changes in nouns and adjectives. To fit limited space, to challenge as little as possible the public's own reading limitations - we practice a kind of imitation reading most of the time - information is processed through default headlines, a one-size-fits-all portrait procedure, a governing political slant, and the absence of thoughtful elements such as analysis or anything that would rattle the template. Journalists imitate other journalists, not only their style but, more importantly, in the processing of information. 

Politicians, of course, imitate other politicians. People imitate people. It's like the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Slowly, we move towards a planet in which everything is just a repeat of something else, something that we saw or heard yesterday... this morning... five minutes ago... until each second is the same as the last... no past and no future.




2010-09-15 08:14:19
great blog thank you

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