On Copying

by F.

Copying is my hobbyhorse. As I’ve mentioned, probably too many times before, copying in the visual arts is highly underrated. Abjuring copying seems to be a 20th century phenomenon, but that’s speculation. It may have resulted from the rise of photography, as visual artists—especially painters—sought to differentiate their products from photographers. Hockney speculates on this in Secret Knowledge and his anecdotes are fairly convincing.

If you read many pre-20th century artists’ biographies, you’ll find that most of the skillful artists copied all the time, from when they were young until the end of their careers. Even expressionistic painters like Van Gogh did, and you can see the influences in their work (Millet in Van Gogh, for instance).

Sargent told others that was the way to learn: he told one young painter to copy Hals and then, when he could learn no more from Hals, move on to Velasquez. Sargent traveled to Spain primarily to copy Velasquez. He liked his own copies of Velasquez so much, in fact, that he put them up in one of his London studies. (This information comes from two biographies of Sargent: Olsen’s and Mount’s.)

Now consider music. Playing Bach is, essentially, the musical equivalent of copying: going over the same notes that the artist was thinking about when he created the work. In a way, you are closer to the artists when you copy than any other time: you are doing what he or she did when composing the artwork.

Or drama: when you act out an Ibsen play, you are basically going over what he thought as he was composing the piece. Not exactly, of course. But close. I’ve always envied arts that were performed for just this reason: they are active, and you can get to feel what it was like to experience the piece from the creators point of view. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but it doesn’t strike me as totally implausible.

Copying is like performance, but it’s also like reverse engineering: how did she do that? How does it work? What are the parts from which the work is built? It’s great fun figuring this out, then putting the parts back together. Art is engineering, in many ways. It’s beauty engineering. If the art object has “utility,” we call it “industrial design.” If not, we call it art.

The phenomenonlogy of copying is interesting. There are times when I’m copying something that I feel I understand exactly where the artist started—where the first mark was that he put down in order to build, say, an eyebrow. What at first seems like a tangle of lines and smudges becomes orderly—“So that’s how you did it!” This is absolutely exhilarating. Putative chaos turns to pattern, which is what perception is, after all: a welter of percepts are ordered by the brain. My brain does it differently than my cat’s; and my cat’s differently from a snake’s. But we all order the information. The rattlesnake is able to order infrared; I’m not.

When this happens to me, when I get what the artist was doing, a scene from Patton, co-written by Coppola, flashes through my mind. I know! It sounds rediculous. But humor me. There’s a sequence where Patton falls asleep in bed reading Rommel’s book on, I think, armor tactics. Later he faces Rommel in the desert. The battle goes Patton’s way and George C. Scott, as Patton, screams, “Rommel, you magnificent son of a bitch! I read your book!” In other words, I know you. I get you—at least this little part of you. Another interpretation of the scene is that Patton is merely exulting in victory, having taken advantage of Rommel’s stupidity in publishing his “secrets;” but I think it’s more than that. He met Rommel mind to mind, one professional to another. That’s what can engender respect between so-called enemies. Or musicians or artists.

Of course, there’s a big difference between playing Bach and being Bach. But I’m not sure there’s any more effective way to narrow the gap than playing at being Bach. This is Bach (not literally, of course—I don’t know who the sitter is):


And this is someone playing at being Bach:


Still a pretty big gap, but I’m narrowing it. In maybe, oh, 30 years, I’ll have closed it a reasonable amount. Maybe.