As artists, we all compare ourselves, whether consciously or not, to other artists. To a certain degree, this cannot be helped and is indeed quite normal and to be expected. On the other hand, when such comparison goes too far, we can be plagued with self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. I’m sure thoughts such as “I’ll never be as good as so and so” are familiar to us all. This leads to the question of influence. How to maintain a proper relationship to the work of artists that influence our own is something we all struggle with from time to time.
As some of you may know, I greatly admire the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. For nearly 30 years now, his stories, essays, and increasingly his letters, have been for me an endlessly fascinating font of truly amazing levels of imagination, erudition, and insight. For those of you unfamiliar with Lovecraft, he was an American author of weird fiction (popularly known as horror) active in the 1920s and 30s. He developed the sub genre now known as cosmic horror, in which the insignificance of the human race is played against the backdrop of a vast, indifferent universe. Additionally, he wrote numerous essays, primarily during his lengthy association with the amateur press movement, as well as tens of thousands of letters.
In reading the recently published “Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw” (Hippocampus Press, 2014), I came by this lengthy passage in a letter to Toldridge, a Washington D.C. based poet, in which Lovecraft speaks to this question of comparison and influence. In this letter, he is discussing the art of writing, but the same points can be applied to the visual arts as well. All italics are Lovecraft’s.
“It would be a great mistake to become overawed by the perfection of the best writers, or to allow their modes of utterance to influence one’s own style unduly. Each person has a style of his own which is natural to him, & his business as a poet is simply to sing what is in him in his own way – without paying any attention to what others have done before him. The world is full of things both naturally great & naturally small, & the existence of the greater does not in any way detract form the value of the lesser in its own field. My fiction can’t be compared with Poe’s or Machen’s, but I take no less pleasure in writing it on that account. The masters of art are not to ‘bow down before’, but to enjoy rationally & with a proper appreciation. They influence one best when he tries least to be influenced – & the best kind of stimulus they give is a subtle & imperceptible sort which makes the novice do better in his own way rather than reflect their moods, subject-matter, & mannerisms. There is no need of indulging in the emotional attitude of humility merely because one does not attain the standard of the eminent. Far wiser it is to regard one’s relative insignificance as simply an impersonal fact – which has no bearing on one’s modest and spontaneous efforts at self-expression”.
Several months later, he writes the following to the same correspondent.
“The best way to write real poetry is not to care whether you write it or not – to banish such ulterior objects as fame or approval of the world from consideration & pay attention only to the moods or images you record. To my mind, the prime essential of aesthetic effort is to repudiate mankind & the world, & stand alone in the cosmos, face to face with the revelation of beauty which one desires to crystallize & perpetuate.”
I for one find this to be very sound advice. I think this resonates with me so strongly because I have had this very experience with my own work. When looking too closely at the work of an artist I admire, I find that my own efforts almost invariably suffer as a result. First, I want to do what the master in question has done, but then I start thinking that my work can’t look too much like his or it will be seen as too derivative. This often leads to a downward spiral of over-conscious effort in which the creative process is short circuited to the point of ineffectiveness. Fortunately, over the years, I’ve gotten better at not letting this happen. When I simply express what is in me, bringing all my skills and sensibilities to bear as best I can, the results are almost always favorable.
Lovecraft’s words strike me as a more eloquent way of stating the often heard phrase, “do what you love”, regardless of what the world may think. If, as creative people, we express what is in us in the most genuine way we know how, then we will have done our job as artists.
I welcome your thoughts on this.