Driving across the Midwest early one morning recently I heard two perky NPR pundits critique a hit song and a movie as “derivative.” People, people: All Art is Derivative! Criticizing any work of art as derivative is just too facile, even naïve, a label deployed by people sadly subjected too early in their lives to some aesthetic authority’s pedantry. All art is derivative because, even if it is “revolutionary,” it’s inevitably reactionary, in that it depends for its novelty on what it rejects. A really interesting thing about art, instead, is how it acknowledges its predecessors, to what extent it’s consciously, knowingly derivative. The classical tradition embraced this reality and turned it into a fruitful tactic of both invention and appreciation. Artists were trained first to imitate, then emulate, and finally invent, but the traces of those first two phases remained in even the most radically inventive new work.
Emulation. It’s the critical approach missing in our modern return to tradition in the arts and architecture. Maybe it’s easier to imagine what it means for artists than architects (I’ll get to them in a minute): Tiepolo, for example, was known as a great emulator of Veronese—as was his Venetian predecessor Sebastiano Ricci. What did that mean in terms of his own “original” artistic production? Tiepolo never copied Veronese per se, but many compositions of his depend on Veronese for narrative structure, figure types, color, etc. What made him a great emulator, someone never accused of being a mere imitator as was Ricci, was that Veronese was a point of departure, a creative spark that Tiepolo fanned with his own manner and energy. He needed Veronese, in a way, as a place to begin, but it was never where he ended.
Do “realist” artists emulate today? And if so, whom do they emulate? Actually, since few make copies, and since their work is rarely inventive in the sense of imagining a narrative scene rather than painting what they see, they probably generally fall into the category of emulators. But whom, or what, are they emulating? Mostly—and this is admittedly really “broad brush”—they look to the past for painting technique; so their subjects of emulation range from Sargeant, to Bougereau, to maybe Velazquez. They seem to be mostly interested in the manner of application of paint to canvas. Looking to models from the past as Tiepolo, or Veronese himself, did—for ideas—seems not to interest many realists today. But it is fundamental, if not for realists then for classicists, to set the bar on the basis of great exemplars, not simply for the mechanical, but even more the intellectual side of art.
Do classical architects today emulate? I would say, not so much. Many copy—indeed, they wear as a badge of honor the “sources” from which they derive everything from a molding profile to a façade—and some invent. But the copies do not qualify as emulations because they do not seek to equal or exceed their models, they merely borrow some of their credibility. And the inventions are generally not very good because the authors are not trained in the rigors of emulation. What would it mean to truly emulate Palladio, or Wren, and not copy them? The answer to that question is worth puzzling over by everyone interested in the subject….