Researchers at the Volen Center for Complex Systems at Brandeis University have taken a second look at “imitation learning.” It seems that when natural talent is added to one’s flagrant imitation of others, what results may be the dual assets needed to gain proficiency. Repeated practice and focused desire come into the equation as well. “We are trying to determine what strategies will optimize imitation learning,” says study co-author Robert Sekular. “These strategies are crucial for acquiring many of the skills needed in daily life. A lot of what we do is learned by watching and imitating others.” This includes tying our shoes, feeding ourselves and, apparently, creating art.
Humans have a natural tendency — in some cases a necessity — to do things in the “correct” way. Much basic learning is done in “monkey see, monkey do” methodology. This goes for sophisticated procedures as well. Novice heart surgeons, for example, learn order, technique and proficiency by watching seasoned pros. Golf swings are refined by playing Tiger’s videos. Complex ballet steps are mastered by observing the legs and feet of expert ballet dancers. It’s the honoured principle of the “demo.” While some human activities are more formalized than others, “visual recipe gathering” is part of our psyche.
The visual arts present a problem in this area. Time-tested processes and academic principles are, of course, valuable, but when large numbers of artists begin to imitate one another a kind of rigor mortis creeps into the creative landscape. Art often expects and demands that one artist be unique from the next. Artists on a quest to find “the secret” can easily fall into the imitation pit. In art, there’s no single, golden way. Ideally, individualists need to sidestep imitation learning and instead rely on direct observation of either the physical world or the universe of the human mind. That’s why self-education is so important in the visual arts. Becoming a student of your own processes and following your nose in the quietude of your workspace can be the most effective route to private bliss and public success.
Many art schools understand and exemplify this dichotomy by teaching little but attitude. This is often a mistake. Those experts at Brandeis say we grab our basics by imitation learning, but it seems it is only later that we get a decent grab at attitude.
PS: “All education must be, in the end, self-education.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: If you accept the proposition, as many do, that imitation learning is the swiftest way to proficiency in the arts, a certain obligation comes with your process. Sooner or later you must give a personal spin and attempt to raise your standards beyond that of your imitated master. Apart from being valuable in the building of self-esteem, this move is vital to wider acceptance and is more in harmony with the idealized wisdom of art history. There is a price to pay if you don’t. In the words of landscape painter A. Y. Jackson, “Those who follow are always behind.”
This letter was originally published as “Imitation learning” on April 24, 2007.
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“We must not imitate that which we seek to create.” (Georges Braque)
We live in a fractured world. Wars, famine and power games are forcing people to abandon their homes and their way of life in hopes of finding peace. For lack of education or specialized skills, the poor are not accepted into our northern communities. They stay in the camps on the borders of turmoil, separated from local community. Animals are caught in the crossfire. Even the trees and the rocks suffer the agony of imbalance. This chaos is evident in my work. In between the rivulets of paint and the textural accidents I choose colours and forms to suggest a landscape where beauty continues to reign. We can still change the tide and build a new world harmony. Certainly, contemporary will focuses on gold instead of beauty. Yet, beauty is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. She is essential to the survival of humanity.