On the shoulders of giants

Johannes BrahmsAnyone who’s taken a music history class has probably heard of Brahms. He’s usually listed off with Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Bach as the greatest, most influential composers of all time. But like most great artists, he almost let his self-doubt keep him from sharing his work.

It took Brahms 20 years to write his first symphony. 20 years! Why did it take him so long? He was paralyzed by his adoration of Beethoven. He loved Beethoven’s music so much and thought there was nothing he could add to the canon. He even had a marble bust of Beethoven overlooking his work space. He destroyed much of his early work, thinking it wasn’t good enough to exist in the same world as Beethoven’s music. Beethoven’s influence is obvious in Brahms’ first symphony. Some critics jokingly called it Beethoven’s 10th symphony. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great work of art. And he was able to continue making truly inspiring and unique music for years afterward.

English: Photograph of bust statue of Ludwig v...This is a problem a lot of artists run into; either we’re undermined for being too similar to our influences, or we are too intimidated by “the greats” to make anything original.

At art school, before anyone would discuss your artwork they would ask your influences. Then when they’d look at the actual work they’d say, “This just looks like a bad Debuffet/ Klimpt/Monet.” And if you say you don’t have any influences, you’re considered naive or arrogant. Even an untrained artist is supposed to know that Grandma Moses influenced them…duh. In this case, I don’t think the artist needs to change, it’s the critics that need to get over themselves. Sometimes it seems like they’re just looking for an excuse to name drop.

This is a tip for writers, but it applies to all the arts; stop comparing yourself to the classics: you’re going to fall short. Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway would not have written the same way if they were working today, so it makes no sense to still try and mimic them. When I read Barbara Kingslover I think I have no right to call myself a writer, but when I read a random new release from the bookstore I think, “I can’t believe I paid for this! I could write circles around this piece of …” Painters should go to contemporary galleries rather than museums. Musicians should go to open-mics rather than concerts. Spend some time exposing yourself to attainable art, and boosting your confidence. Sometimes it’s good to say, “hey, I can do that!”

If you have a spark of talent you owe it to yourself to express it. Take your influences and put your own spin on them. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Imagine how boring life would be if everyone stopped trying to make art after great work already existed. The radio would only play Beethoven. The libraries would be filled with Shakespeare  and the movie theaters would only be playing The Godfather. We need a little Brahms to spice things up.

9 comments

  1. Even though I do water colour paintings of religious scenes, you can’t call me a serious painter. You cannot call me a “fan” either although I listen to western classical music very often and from our own large collection, I intend to go from Wagner to Mozart – with one of my favourite operas being “La Traviata” which made me (and my German/British wife) travel from India to Vienna just to see the performance.

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