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Creativity: Influence vs Individuality

Boon Cotter on the thorny issue of inspiration

Each week we feature the best content from #AltDevBlogADay, a blog site on which developers write daily about things that they find interesting. This week it's the turn of Boon Cotter, who writes about the thorny issues surrounding influence versus individuality.

Before I go launching into the blog entry, a brief introduction might help explain my slant: My name is Boon. It's a long story. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communication Design, which is a fancy way of saying 'unemployable'. Nevertheless, I've worked as an artist in the film, television and games industries. My next adventure in life is learning how to program, and I'm attempting to create an independent game in Unity3D. I am involved in a number of online arts communities, mostly as a voyeur, and I sometimes have student contact, which describes the inspiration for this article. Also, I talk too much. My personal blog is located at BoonCotter.com, for anyone who wants to laugh at a noob artist attempting to understand code. This post is mirrored there.

Creativity: Influence vs Individuality

From time to time I am involved in conversation about the creative industries. A shocking revelation, no doubt. Nevertheless, I find that there's a topic which frequently arises (particularly among students and newcomers) and that is the question of influence versus individuality. There seems to be a common assumption that to earn creative integrity one must develop a personal style - a unique artistic vocabulary - which is utterly devoid of external influence. None of us are strangers to the desire to make a mark; to sign the world with our own unique signature. But what a huge burden it is to expect to earn that mark without influence. Imagine if all industries imposed the same expectations on their practitioners: Would you want to be operated upon by a surgeon who believed he could figure it all out himself?

Well, this isn't surgery, and I don't meant to speak as though I have a lifetime of experience: I am myself only just beginning my creative journey in most respects, and anyone who knows me could attest to how much I have to learn. But nevertheless, I feel I've mostly overcome the creative self-consciousness of having a noisy inner critic.

And I understand just how brutally uncompromising he can be.

I'm no stranger to the fear of being labelled 'derivative'; branded a plagiariser, fleeing the midnight mob of artistic masters that are my peers, amongst angry shouts of "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" But to grow as a creative individual, you need to move beyond the impossible expectations that an inexperienced inner critic demands.

If you would indulge me (and perhaps pretend I'm a wizened old magister of the creative industries with real wisdom to impart rather than a 30-something neckbearded nerd with pacman tattoos), I'd like to talk a bit about creativity and influence.

And why you should probably just get over yourself.

The real problem with being afraid of influence (or afraid of acknowledging it) is that your influences will have some of the biggest impact on you maturing as an artist. Unless you're the single most talented individual on the planet who was enjoying sell out shows by age 4 and is now a retired billionaire who spends his teenage years endorsing arts academies and politely declining the Archibald prize for your napkin doodles on the grounds that any more avant-garde statuettes in your house would dangerously unbalance the Earth's axis, I'm going to bet that you don't know it all. And yet, for many of us, the struggle to find artistic identity entirely on our own is a kind of brutally masochistic right of passage.

There was a time when I wouldn't be caught dead emulating someone else's style. Discovering that there was an artist out there whose work or ideas were similar to mine was mortifying. I'd be desperately assuring my peers that my work had been produced in isolation from this other creator, to the point of arguing so aggressively that I surely looked guilty as all hell of counterfeit. I even became afraid of exposing myself to new work out of fear that someone would be doing something remotely similar.

Then I was exposed to the writing of Carl Jung and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And someone who kindly translated it all for me.

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