I'm reading Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams again. It's one of my go-tos when I need to figure things out, whether it be where to go with an entire project, or help me clarify my thoughts on things. Adams' book, Why People Photograph is another resource I turn to often.
In the essay, "Making Art New," Adams tackles that gremlin artists face to keep their work fresh, keep improving, and perhaps even reinventing themselves.
A section of the essay begins, "The question, 'what is new?' implies a more hopeful question, 'what is better?'" (WPP 79) Then goes on to ask by what mark we measure progress, and offers "more Truth and/or Beauty" as a measure, but then points out the challenge this can be, and says he is "unacquainted with any first-rate painter or photographers who believe that their pictures will be more beautiful than those of Rembrandt." But Adams acknowledges that sometimes our predecessors were wrong, or at least viewed to be wrong, by those influenced by them. Though seen to be wrong, we are never free from their influence: "...as long as we respond to our forebears, they are with us."
It is my belief that we are influenced by our predecessors always, whether we respond directly to them or not, for it is that response to an influence or denial or divorce from it that shapes us, informs our current work, and guides us in our quest to improve.
“Isn’t it necessary for [art] to be…different from what has gone before?” Adams asks. Then begins to answer with this gem:
...All art comes out of a background of convention established by one's predecessors. Every serious artist borrows not only from those conventions, but from the particular insights of individuals he admires. This is unavoidable because, as the painter Mark Tobey observed, "No young artist can grow unless he emulates someone bigger than himself"—we all start small. Thus, Cézanne, for example, borrowed from Delacroix, and Matisse from Cézanne and Delacroix. It sometimes even seems as if the greatest artists borrow most. Certainly none of those just mentioned ever tried to hide his dependence on his sources; each, great as he was, understood that creations out of nothing are possible only for God. We seem in the end to be left with a series of revivals. (WPP 81)
In order for us to grow, in order for us to even begin learning, it is necessary to emulate and borrow. But, as Adams later states, “No serious artist would…ever set out simply to repeat another.” Sooner or later, we must be as Matisse who said “I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them.”