Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today’s most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine. They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August.
In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: “Hemon is … interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.””
I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.
It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don’t live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don’t think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say “I haven’t seen that before.”, then there is no reason to fear your influences.