You are like art; a derivative

There’s this beautiful idea in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon:

“The artist who had designed the poster then confessed that he had simply copied it from a book and had made no effort whatsoever to obtain permission—the entire concept of getting permission to use other people’s work was faulty, since all art was derivative of other art.”

This isn’t a new idea. Austin Kleon, a writer who draws, begins his book, Steal Like an Artist, with two quotes. One from Pablo Picasso—”Art is theft.”—and another from T.S. Eliot:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Seen like this, anything we create is just the latest iteration, the freshest remix, the most recent reworking of what came before. This realisation creates in us a certain indebtedness to past humanity. As I put it at the end of my first book, Disconnected:

“Every man and woman owes a debt to those that came before and those that walk the earth beside them. Writers and thinkers especially so. For their task is to add a brick to the infinite structure built by people now dead, and being worked on by people still living.”

Is this not enough to suppress the illusion that everything we do is original and unique and revolutionary? 

I’ve also begun to wonder, if nothing we create is original and is merely a derivative, what about our selves? If art is the latest line in a never-ending dialogue, what about our personality and our mind? Is that which we call “I”, like all art, a derivative?

It’s a scary thought. 

But it’s interesting too. Take the words of T.S. Eliot above and twist them. Immature poets imitate; immature people imitate. They pretend to be someone they’re not. Mature poets steal; mature people steal. They take the most desirable properties of the people they’ve been exposed to and incorporate them into their own make up. Bad poets deface what they take; bad people deface what they take. They see someone making sacrifices for their principles, and then proceed to sacrifice the feelings of others for their own questionable ideals. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique; the good person takes the examples and ideas of others and makes them uniquely his own, via a process of alchemy which we’re far from understanding.

Is that what happens? Do we come out of the womb pure and unaltered, a blank canvas, and then have our purity irreversibly corrupted by the people around us, our environment, the ideas we’re exposed to, and the consequences of the choices we make? And how much of that original purity do we retain? Do we retain none at all, becoming pure products of every contact with reality? Or is there some part of us that is immune and inaccessible and forever sacred? Is there some small segment of us that survives contact and endures till the candle of our existence is snuffed out by the winds of time?