When my mother was born, my grandfather gave my grandmother a gift of a full sized movie projector built in the middle of the living room. This was a huge deal back in the ’40s. This was, of course, before smart-phones, before streaming, before cable, even as far back as before TV itself, if you can believe it. So to have the quintessential form of consumer media right there in your living room was the epitome of dramatic flair.
But that’s the kind of man my grandfather was, very dramatic and domineering. So if he told you that you were going to grow up and be a famous artist, then you had to adopt this as fact, in spite of your own ambitions. Everyone always said that I was so creative anyway. That I had such an imagination, always coming up with such interesting stories. That coupled with a natural talent to draw, and my future seemed inevitable.
Then, one day, my grandfather told me to draw something completely unique. What’s unique? I asked. Something that no-one has ever seen before, he said. I was stunned by his request. How could I possibly create something ‘inconceivable’?
The pressure to do something entirely unique shut me down completely. Everything I thought of had bits of something else in it. At that time, I wanted all my art to look like my favorite Disney characters, but that was as about as far away from unique as you could get. There was absolutely nothing I could create that was totally unique. Under the pressure of trying to meet his requirements, I stopped drawing altogether.
25 years later and I’ve learned that you don’t have to be 100% original to produce valuable art. In fact, it’s sort of impossible to do so. It’s a virtually unachievable goal. Nothing is ‘original’ (thank you Austin Kleon, for that). Art needs a regular influx of ideas and community in order to survive. Art isn’t created in isolation, it doesn’t occur out of nothing. It comes from an amalgamation of experiences of the senses – all processed and then expressed through the voice of the artist. I can watch Powerpuff Girls and then The Simpsons and create a mashup where Lisa looks like a Powerpuff Girl and that’s an original concept, but it’s predicated on two already existing concepts. Art needs other things in order to create itself – it can’t occur without some type of input. Ergo, it’s not ‘unique’ in the purest sense of the term.
My grandfather passed away a few years ago and I never realized his vision of my art career. I don’t mind, though. I continue to have plenty of other opportunities to use my creative abilities. And, it turns out I never really wanted it in the first place. All I ever really wanted to be when I grew up was a horse.