Emulating (vs. Imitating) Your Artistic Role Models: Where Art Truly Starts

As an artist, I have never had much luck in staying put, or boxing myself in by trying merely to imitate others.   As a child, and as a young adult, I was continually inspired by music I heard.  This music ranged enormously in style: from carols we sang at Christmas to blockbuster film soundtracks I heard in movies such as “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters”; from the piano music of Beethoven and Chopin to popular music by Billy Joel; from songs I heard on the radio by Madonna and Pearl Jam to the rap music of Eminem.  These creators, and many others, ignited in me new desires to learn and create, to evolve my creative expression.  They helped get me started on the path of developing my own artistic abilities and following my artistic dreams.   To them and to all my artistic influences I will always be grateful.

However, I was mixed up on one important point.  See, I got mixed up over the difference between learning from those I admired and thinking that I should try to be JUST LIKE them.  In other words, I confused imitation with emulation. Ultimately, I found that trying to follow in some one else’s footsteps does not work.  Instead, I have found that I must follow my own creative path, even as I’m inspired learning by others.  It is the key to creative happiness and fulfillment.

We live in a world of other people’s creations.  Look around you.  Every “man- made” object of our civilization, every useful idea we have implemented, started in another person’s mind.  This is wonderful because there are so many useful creations that we use on a daily basis, from cars to iPhones, from laws and roads to fast food restaurants.  It is what we have built our lives upon.

Furthermore, we are constantly being given messages of what other people think is good or bad, or what they think is valuable or not valuable.  Sometimes, we look to other people to tell us who we should be.  Yet is that where we really find the answer?   Learning from others is one thing, but having to BE like them is another.  Emulation and imitation are not the same thing.

Do not get me wrong.   I have spent countless days, months, even years, learning from my inspirations.  This was a big part of my musical education in high school and college, and it has truly enrichened my life. It will no doubt continue to inspire and teach me for the rest of my days.

In art, mere imitation does not result in new creativity.  However, a healthy dose of emulating those we are inspired by can and does.  The creative impulse is passed from one creative artist to the next, much like runners in a relay race.  The race that was run by your predecessor is valuable, worthwhile in itself, and you will learn immensely from it. Yet it does not substitute for running your own race.  You have your own terrain to cover.  You have your own race to run.  The creative artist’s longing for creation is not necessarily found in precedent, custom, or in imitating someone else.  Just like a person’s own words are going to be influenced by the people who taught him or her language, a creative artist’s art will bear the influence of previous artists.  That is how we gain the capacity to express.

Yet what is it we long to express?  Someone else’s vision, or our own?  Real art comes from the individual artist’s desire to create anew, to express ourselves.   The creative act has its own identity, it has its own signature, just like the human fingerprint, or the snowflake, or your loved one’s laughter.   There is no other creation that is exactly like it, because it is a genuine expression from a particular individual.  This is the beauty of creativity.  Without this individual expression, can you really call it creation?

To me, the artists that have inspired me are a starting point.  They are an invitation for me to initiate my own creativity.  Every artist is a relayer, so to speak, offering to pass me the baton.

Take the example of Beethoven.   While he was alive, he created his music from the same drive to create something new, a refusal to simply go with the herd and accept the forms that were already there.  He yearned for expansion, and so he exploded the art form of the symphony into new dimensions, and he expanded the canon of keyboard music, as well as chamber music and other musical genres, in delightful and surprising ways.  He pushed the envelope.  His brilliant shining example has justifiably inspired centuries of artists who followed him

Yet when he died, the need to create did not die with him.  Nor did he, or any other creative artist, have a monopoly over creativity.  Others followed Beethoven, inspired by him, but longing to create new musical art forms, to express previously unheard of sonorities and tell previously untold musical stories.  Each composer who emulated Beethoven could attest to his influence on them.  Yet none sought merely to imitate him, or they would have contributed nothing new to music.  Each one sought to express a unique artistic vision.

There is nothing to be gained from mere imitation if it is not motivated by a desire to express your own artistic individuality.  That is why I say, do not merely imitate others. Create what is true for you.    Dare to try things out.  Try something different.  Do what has not been done before.  The beauty of authentic creative expression is that it has not been done before.  Because you are unique.

Do not worry about fitting into a category.  Categories are for file-sorters.  You know what goes into boxes?  Storage.  Things that no longer breathe, no longer are alive in our daily life.  Labels are for museum artifacts.   I am alive right now.  I am learning right now.  And I am drawing from any and all directions.  Right now.   I have no obligation to express myself in a way that has already been done.

Do not simply imitate.  Emulate the spirit of those you admire, and then create for yourself.

That is where art truly starts.