Cliches, originality and hipsterism: Why culture depends on constant imitation

We are all cliches until proven otherwise. The engine of culture is imitation.

People who stop creativity in its tracks because they fear being a cliché are people who don’t understand creativity at all. They don’t understand that all culture revolves on an axis of apprenticeship. We are all a work in progress and we are always imitating others.

The distinction between original and cliché is like the distinction between altruism and selfless giving. It’s abstract at best, and in practice rarely exists. All artists are either imitating others or their own past successes, until luck and fortune turn up and deliver something new out of the mess.

That’s all an artist can do. You have to turn up – face the blank page. And you can only start with what you know.

The idea that you have to create something ground-breaking and world changing right away is a philistine’s belief. Only people who are completely ignorant of creativity and how it works could possibly think like that.

Most of the creative process is turning up, readying yourself for when lightening chooses to strike. And you have to learn the tools of your trade to be be ready.

Learning the tools of your trade means learning how the masters did what they did. It’s also important to cherish those masters because they are the only thing that will inspire you through the lean times.

It’s very fashionable these days to act suspicious of hero-worship. Just like patriotism, or idealism – holding up the greatness of heroes is seen as something untenable in the end-of-history age of the post-cold war, post-Hitler Mactopia.

This is the root of much of the nihilism of our times. We have seen the toxic dangers of idealism and nationalism, of serving a creed out of a sense of duty.

So this generation sees fit to abandon all duty, all creeds and all heroes.

This is a dunce’s philosophy, but the most dangerous thing about it is that the nihilist thinks they are being smart – they really believe that they are acting with a worldly detachment born from insight.

Behind the hipsterish distaste for imitation and hero-worship then, lies cowardice.

Rather than attempting to philosophise our way out of bad ideas into good, we reject the importance of ideas completely. Far better to invest in random, fatalistic misery and metaphysical emptiness, than to invest in the notion that how we envision the world can determine the life we lead. Much less responsibility that way.

Nihilism pretends to be a wised-up perspective; it’s a conceited way of masking fear and intellectual laziness. We know this, because it involves no risk. It’s a form of psychological surrender, and the worst thing about it is that people think it’s a kind of savant-like achievement.

There’s no achievement in defaulting to nihilism.

Most creativity is a cliché. You can’t act without a creed, and to reject all value-systems because some values have been destructive, is imbecilic.

Our heroes must be cherished, because it is through them that we find the resources to carry on. The great struggle of being an artist is that there is no earthly, rational reason to carry on doing what you are doing. The process is entirely intuitive, and that’s why so many people give up. They look for a guarantee, a rational, air-tight case to keep doing what they do.

You never find that reason. Originality, inventiveness and revolutionary works of art can’t be thought or willed into existence anyway.

The only certainty you can find to keep you going in times of doubt and terrifying, humiliating creative droughts, will be found in your heroes.

It’s remarkably easy to talk yourself out of being creative. You can’t argue with that voice, because it’s right – it’s perfectly logical.

There are already too many artists. All the great things have been said. You can’t break the rules any more than they have already been broken.

With a deference to heroes, however, we find an intuitive energy that keeps us going. We realise that they imitated most of the time, until that process of imitation bestowed on them their own voice. That voice will show itself to you, but you can’t discover it through intellectual reasoning – it will spring itself on you.

If you choose to adopt the posturing of hipster nihilism, because it gives you the false comfort of being one step ahead of a meaningless universe, then you will never find that voice.

The muses only visit the humble. The holy spirit rains fire only upon the devoted.

Your job is not to be constantly original. Your job is simply to imitate, learn your trade and be happy with being a cliché until lightening decides to strike.

It may never strike. Tough. That’s how culture works, it evolves over time, and most of it is abrasively slow.

If you have a problem with this, if you can’t stand to be unoriginal, then you are no artist, you’re a glory-seeker, a hipster, a fashionista and yes, a philistine.


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