The Benefit of Imitation for Creativity in Art and Design: The Cases of Gerhard Richter and J Mays

The Benefit of Imitation for Creativity in Art and Design: The Cases of Gerhard Richter and J Mays

Laurens Rook (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0504-4.ch014
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Many artists and designers borrow, cite, or seek inspiration in external source materials in their daily creative practice. The aim of this chapter is to show that imitation of external source material offers creative professionals the opportunity to introduce an element of surprise to the creative act, which may explain why a creative product with very little or no originality whatsoever can nevertheless gain reputation as being creative. The literature on imitation in psychology and the humanities will be reviewed in parallel to a recent suggestion in creativity research to give more prominence to the criterion of surprise in the study of creativity. The potential benefit of imitation for creativity in art and design will be illustrated with a description of the working practices of the prominent painter Gerhard Richter and the famous car designer J Mays – two contemporary creative professionals renowned for usage of external source material in their own creative work.
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Good artists borrow, great artists steal. (Pablo Picasso)

Build on the ideas of others. (IDEO brainstorming rule)

On May 13, 2015 Andy Warhol’s 1963 painting entitled Colored Mona Lisa – in which Leonardo’s original Mona Lisa was reproduced thirty times in black-and-white and color – sold for $56,165,000 at Christie’s, New York (Christie’s, 2015). This brought to mind a provocative statement by that other famous painter, Pablo Picasso, who once suggested that professional artists are free to borrow or even steal the creative ideas of others, and that it would payoff for artists to do so. But the merits of borrowing, citing, or seeking inspiration in existing source materials may not be limited to artists only. State-of-the-art design handbooks these days clearly instruct industrial and product designers to gather detailed knowledge on past and present benchmarks, and to use these examples to their own benefit (Berkun, 2010; Morris, 2009). Along such lines, prize winning product design studios like IDEO have clearly paved the way for ‘brokering knowledge’ by using external sources as inspiration in the creative design process (Hargadon, 2002; Hargadon & Sutton, 1997; Sutton & Hargadon, 1996). A certain degree of imitation of creative products, examples and ideas thus seems to be a vital and profitable component of the daily practice of producing fine art and design.

This stands in stark contrast to the dominant paradigm in creativity research. Creativity is a widely recognized and important topic in contemporary psychological research, and many handbooks (cf., Amabile, 1996; Kaufman & Sternberg, 2006, 2010; Paulus & Nijstad, 2003; Smith, Ward, & Finke, 1995; Sternberg, 1999) and encyclopedias (Runco & Pritzker, 2011) have been dedicated to it. Most researchers in the field accept the standard definition of creativity as composed of originality and usefulness (first introduced by Stein in 1953 and Barron in 1955; see Runco & Jaeger, 2012), and in particular the relevance of originality for creativity is particularly beyond dispute. Indicative of the dominant perspective on the matter is Mandler’s (1995) statement that “[c]reativity […] is usually thought to include only the truly novel; there is no argument as to the novelty” (p. 11; see also Runco & Jaeger, 2012; Weisberg, 2015).

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