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Imitation, Theft, and Collaboration

While I was reflecting recently on Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, I was reminded of something T. S. Eliot wrote (unlikely pair, I know): “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” Eliot stated in his essay on Philip Massinger. “Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

For those unfamiliar with Tarantino’s filmography, the self-taught director’s entire career is steeped in this philosophy—stealing images, aesthetics, and even whole scenes from cinematic history in order to create something wholly innovative.

In his most recent film (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt), Tarantino reimagines the Hollywood of 1969 in a fictitious tale about a has-been TV western star, his stunt man, and the real-life events surrounding the Manson Family murders. But instead of merely imitating Hollywood history and the classic cowboy genre, Tarantino transcends his source material. He offers a mesmerizing pastiche, filled with snapshots from classics like Gunsmoke or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly all sewn together into a cohesive patchwork quilt.

This film (and much of Tarantino’s work) proves Eliot’s thesis: that art can never exist in a vacuum. Instead, artists combine, repurpose, and breathe life into an endless supply of “stolen” artistic ingredients in an attempt to make sense of our present world, situations, and stories.

When I first discovered that artists were allowed (nay, encouraged) to heavily borrow from the past instead of attempting to imagine wholly novel ideas, it felt as though I was lifted from under the weight of every artist, musician, and author I ever admired. Now, I was able to stand firmly on their shoulders, hoisted by the strength of their collective creativity, knowledge, and wisdom. So although Tarantino’s films are often objectionable (and not recommended for those sensitive to crass language and gratuitous violence), I’m beyond thankful for his incomparable grasp on his art form and for his ability to transform borrowed and stolen experiences into something, well, Tarantinoesque. Yes, that’s a word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Now, the term “stealing” in this case may appear self-serving, but the thievery employed by Tarantino and described by Eliot is not a zero-sum game. Instead, it’s a powerful form of collaboration where the thief introduces his unique voice and the thieved artist is immortalized. While we do celebrate this collaborative connection to the past, it must be remembered that collaboration isn’t constrained to one-way conversations with dead poets. We live in community with other passion-filled artists—artists who help shape our worldview and whose collective voices are often louder, bolder, and more inspiring than a single voice.

The most original parts of an artist's work may be those in which other artists, both dead and still living, assert their immortality most vigorously. Chris Thiessen

The power of collaboration is displayed time and again in the music community. Most recently, I was blown away by its presence on Bon Iver’s album i,i. Just three years ago, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon delivered a computery, inward-looking record titled 22, A Million. His experimental extremes throughout the album convey a feeling of isolation and wintry lonesomeness which remain haunting and beautiful today. However, on i,i, Bon Iver’s tone has shifted remarkably as Vernon steers the band into meaningful collaboration with a broader musical community to create something uplifting and transformative.

The piano-driven, gospel-inspired song “U (Man Like)” is a perfect example of what I mean. The second verse reads, “Well, I know that we set off for a common place / And the lines have run too deep / How much caring is there of some American love / When there’s lovers sleeping in our streets?” The message is one of unity, of striving together toward a better “common place.” However, instead of just delivering this message himself, Vernon invited singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby to sing the first lyric, art-pop artist Moses Sumney the second, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus the third before Vernon is finally heard again.

While it would be easy to think more collaborative voices would distort the distinct identity Bon Iver has crafted over their career, Vernon and company are more assured and confident here than they’ve ever been as they embrace the life-giving energy of community. Indeed, their identity is made all the more vivid because of the artists they’ve gathered around them—artists which have included Kanye West, James Blake, The National, and so many more in recent years. Often, individuality and originality are the most prized qualities to the critical eye, not collaboration. But if I may again paraphrase Eliot, the most original parts of an artist’s work may be those in which other artists, both dead and still living, assert their immortality most vigorously.

I know that my arguments here for collaboration are just “stealing” and rehashing Eliot’s ideas as well as the Rabbit Room mantra that art nourishes community and community nourishes art. But I’m so encouraged that it’s not just something we say. It’s something I see in the work of Tarantino and Bon Iver. It’s something I see in hip-hop, a genre where you’ll be hard-pressed to find a project that doesn’t promote a deep sense of collaboration. Lastly, it’s something I see in my own work, even this essay which is the fruit of conversations, shared thoughts, and lots of encouragement from the community around me.

So I apologize if you were hoping for some original, individualistic wisdom about art; I have none to share. Instead, I offer an invitation to create collaboratively and to steal confidently.


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