Good artists copy…

I came across this video on Boing Boing. It resonated pretty strongly with the budo idea of stealing from your teachers in order to learn. I believe it’s also closely related to the idea of practicing repetitions of forms in a way that is “alive”. On top of all that, at the end the guy giving the talk says something about “standing on the shoulders of giants” – those are the words that I had bouncing around in my mind when I started on this blog!

I wonder if to some extent people who, intending to “steal” rather than “copy”, unwittingly get caught up in copying anyway. (Hypothetically) like some people who think they are trying to “steal” the touchscreen technology from the iPhone to make their own thing, when more accurately they are “copying” by by trying to make the same touchscreen as the iPhone in the first place. Or like an aikido student who is trying to “steal” by observing where the teacher is putting his feet more than seeing what the teacher is accomplishing by putting his feet in those places. The teacher might be trying to achieve certain positions at certain times, but it’s easily possibly for the student to overlook those aspects.

Of course, there’s a process i.e., you don’t get directly to an end result in a lot of situations, and there is no end result oftentimes. If I, as the aikido student, end up being able to copy my teacher’s foot positions, maybe it’s a good step toward grasping why he’s doing that. If I continue the process by reflecting upon how I don’t seem to be getting the same end result as my teacher despite putting my feet in those same places, maybe I can refine or discover what end result he is really achieving e.g., achieving certain positions at certain times not just random times.

Without reflecting and refining my grasp of what I am doing, what my teacher is apparently doing, what my teacher is apparently achieving, what my teacher is apparently trying to achieve, etc., I will stay in the “copying not stealing” frame. For instance, I may get to a relatively shallow interpretation of what my teacher is accomplishing by his foot positioning, such as not getting hit by the strike. If I have it in mind, from the start, “I don’t need to imitate him exactly”, then I may end up standing two feet away, having achieved the result of not getting hit.

Of course some situations are more apparent than others. In this case, being two feet away, I’m unlikely to be able to do the next action just like my teacher. However, I think that a fair number of people follow this way of thinking and perceiving nevertheless, and it leads them to, for instance, dismiss this or that technique as nonviable. As for my own emphases in practicing, it is indeed to reflect upon and refine my ways of thinking and perceiving that the practice affords me opportunities – for me, that is the “process”.

And I recognize it is not an easy task – it definitely can’t be made into a recipe or formula – to navigate how to copy and steal well i.e., in a way that still helps me grow and work in the process. If a person is hungry or ambitious to avoid wasting time copying, then I’ve found that they don’t seem to get much out of that source of copy/stealing e.g., teachers and traditions. So I believe there’s a certain amount of surrender that one has to be willing to embrace and even cultivate, in order to get the most out of copying. It may be that copying hones one’s ability to see what there is to steal, and even the ability to steal it. So, in addition to reflect upon and refine my ways of thinking and perceiving, the process seems to require the cultivation of surrender also.

The process  is always about the extent – how far is too far, how much, how long, etc. How much do I want to copy vs that other guy? That will depend on what we’re each trying to go toward or get at. Some aikido people are very content, and also develop as human beings, copying to a greater extent I do. Conversely there are people who stop copying earlier than I would, and I’m impressed by how much they’re able to steal, not to mention how much they seem to innovate and create on their own. So, another way to frame the process is that it’s about one’s sense of value. How do I want to live? to be? to spend my limited time here on this earth?

Addendum:

Something Borrowed

After reading (most of) this article, I thought further, as human beings we’re imperfect. Hypothetically, as an artist, I may be clearly satisfied at a work I have produced and the process I’ve gone through. But it’s plenty conceivable that at various points along the way I’ve gone through different stances around the question, “Am I just copying another artist’s work? Am I just leeching off of them? Or is this really my work that I’m making? Will it, or does it, have meaning for me?” Even one person can, at different points in his/her life, different grasps of one thing.

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