“You’ve got to realize that influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.”
I have always liked this quote because it insists that much of what we call “influence” is active, not passive. The way we talk about artistic influence is backwards. When we say, “Basquiat was influenced by Van Gogh,” that isn’t really correct, because it implies that Van Gogh is doing something to Basquiat, when actually the opposite is true.
Here is an explanation in literary terms from K.K. Ruthven’s Critical Assumptions:
Our understanding of literary ‘influence’ is obstructed by the grammar of our language, which puts things back to front in obliging us to speak in passive terms of the one who is the active partner in the relationship: to say that Keats influenced Wilde is not only to credit Keats with an activity of which he was innocent, but also to misrepresent Wilde by suggesting he merely submitted to something he obviously went out of his way to acquire. In matters of influence, it is the receptor who takes the initiative, not the emitter. When we say that Keats had a strong influence on Wilde, what we really mean is that Wilde was an assiduous reader of Keats, an inquisitive reader in the service of an acquisitive writer.
And here’s art historian Michael Baxandall, in Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, lamenting that “influence” is a kind of catch-all that leads to an impoverished way of talking about art:
‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality…. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform tackle… — everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round — in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think in terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.
Again, Van Gogh isn’t working on Basquiat, Basquiat is working on Van Gogh. This is a crucial distinction, and you won’t do any good thinking about artistic thievery without it.
PS. Basquiat above is quoted by art historian Robert Farris Thompson, author of Flash of the Spirit, in the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child. (The screenshots are from the doc, too.)
PPS. Special thanks to Edward Tufte for the Baxandall passage.