In Good Company: Drawing Inspiration from Others

Here’s a question to ponder: as an artist, how much are you drawing inspiration from others in your field? Or, for that matter, from artists in other genres besides your own? I don’t just mean your influences, those icons each of us looks up to within our own field of art. I’m referring to your peers, to the creative tribe of musicians, painters, dancers, actors, etc. to which many of us belong. Do you draw inspiration or ideas from other artists around you?

There seem to be a couple of schools of thought on this question. Some artists feel that they need to be isolated from external input while they are creating so the work can emanate from their own sensibilities, or so they can tap into the “muse” in whatever form they describe it. For example, I’ve known some musicians who won’t listen to other people’s music when they’re songwriting because they’re afraid of inadvertently stealing someone else’s musical idea.

Other artists, however, have a different approach. They actually seek external input from the work of their peers to spark seeds of inspiration–a starting point upon which to build something new. As part of their incubation process, these artists openly and eagerly consume whatever artistic input they can get.

For me, I subscribe to the second school of thought: I love to be inspired by others who are doing what I want to do.

I personally believe the create-in-a-vacuum idea is noble, but not entirely true. Consider the following quote. Ever heard this one?

“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”

As sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, this quote itself has actually been borrowed and stolen multiple times. It has been attributed in some variation to everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Pablo Picasso to T.S. Elliot to Steve Jobs! This suggests to me that there are probably a lot more artists who subscribe to the second school of thought.  They are drawing inspiration from others.

It sounds virtuous enough not to want to “steal” from other artists, but I’m not sure this way of thinking is realistic because none of us actually lives in a complete vacuum. Our brains are constantly absorbing and assimilating ideas that can subtly make it into our art, no matter how long ago we heard/saw/experienced them. In fact, I’d think you’d be more likely to plagiarize someone in this manner because you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. (At least if you’re up front about your external influences, you can consciously avoid stealing them.) I can totally appreciate separating oneself for a time to focus on one’s art, but I personally don’t think it’s possible for art itself to emanate completely from one’s own being without some sort of external inspiration mixed in.

That’s not to suggest it’s okay to steal–there is such a thing as intellectual property, after all–but if we’re honest with ourselves, I think our art is usually more about reworking an existing idea than coming up with something no one has ever thought of before. We really do draw inspiration from others more than we realize, whether it’s happening intentionally or in the background.

A personal example

Here’s why I’m bringing this up: for a few years now, I’ve been working on expanding musically into composing for film, TV and/or media. Thus, I’m always studying the work of other composers, from classical icons to modern-day film scoring greats. And they inspire me, but they also feel waaaaaay out of reach sometimes–like, “How could I EVER write a score like _____?” (Hint: the name in the “blank” is John Williams.)

But since coming to New York City, I’ve become acquainted with quite a few excellent composers who are writing professionally. I’m nurturing a friendship with one guy whose latest studio feature film score is debuting nationwide in theaters this week. Several of my friends are composing for various TV shows. Another friend of mine, Brian Feinstein, composes for the stage, and is in fact the guest on the latest edition of The Clan Artiste Podcast (which you should totally listen to).

As I get to know these composers, I’m also acquainting myself with some of their work, and it’s inspiring me in some fresh ways. Sometimes, I hear a musical idea from one of them that blows me away, which inspires me to dig deeper and up my own game. Other times, I hear something, and I go, “Hey! I could do something like that!”, and it encourages me that maybe my own goals aren’t so far out of reach.  Just by being in the company of these talented men and women, I’m gaining a whole new level of inspiration.

Creativity breeds creativity

This really underscores my point. While each of us has our own way of getting into that creative space (and while the act of creating often requires some solitude), I think in order to thrive, artists need to have some kind of creative community. Creativity breeds creativity; inspiration sparks more inspiration.

In fact, look for a minute at our history, at how many artistic movements have been spawned when artists hung around each other. Consider Montparnasse in Paris in the 1920s, out of which emerged greats like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway. Then there’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s, which spawned icons like Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.

It wasn’t just by chance that London’s West End and New York’s Broadway became hubs for the theatre.

It wasn’t random that Sun Records became the birthplace for rock & roll, or that Haight-Ashbury completely changed the sound of rock two decades later.

There’s a reason why we associate jazz music with New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem, or why cities like Paris, Rome, Venice and Vienna will always be associated with Western art and culture. When creative people cluster together, it generates a critical mass of inspiration. It doesn’t have to be within the same art form, either. Poems inspire paintings, books inspire songs, paintings inspire poems, music inspires dance. Creativity breeds creativity.

This, in my opinion, is why artists need community. When we’re among other creatives, we’re in good company, and we need that company of artists because we are more reliant on each other for inspiration than we think.

Art really does not happen in a vacuum. It’s messy, sloppy, full of overlapping ideas. That’s what makes it rich and relatable.

That’s what I think, anyway. What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to weigh in.