Thursday, March 22, 2007

Second-hand creativity

I've often denounced a parasitic offshoot of creativity that takes an existing instance of genuine inspiration and reworks it insipidly to produce a pale copy. The example I've always used when whining is that of blue jeans. Once upon a time, the first adolescents who were so emotionally attached to their battered old pants that they refused to throw them away, even when they had holes at the level of the knees and buttocks, were authentic creators, who had invented a new sartorial concept: that of clothes with worn threads... not only at the seams. A variation on this theme was the case of kids whose jeans were a shade too long, so that they tended to put their heels on the cuffs of their pants, which would soon become threadbare and scruffy, often muddy. Another example of the bond between youngsters and their jeans was the idea of using a needle and thread to attach some kind of personal emblem to this mass-produced clothing whose aspect had become standardized. Some kids sewed on a cloth badge of one kind or another, but the most brilliant invention consisted of devoting time and effort to embroider a colorful message to observers, maybe admirers: the wearer's nickname, or the name of his /her idol or loved one. Imagination was in power, as Parisian adolescents wrote on the walls of the city in May 1968, and there were no limits to the ways in which young people might express spontaneously their attachment to this second skin: their jeans.

Then the marketing men and the industrial product designers stepped into the picture... and that's where the annoying phenomenon of second-hand creativity took over. They invented nasty techniques to mass-produce artificially "used" jeans, to make them look discolored and threadbare, to "personalize" them with badges and embroidery...

The notorious Hillary 1984 video (whose author has just been unmasked) provides us with a typical case of second-hand creativity. [Click here to see it on YouTube.] The primordial Macintosh ad, which ran on TV 23 years ago, was an extraordinary and daring work of creation. No such praise can be attributed to the messy mashup that has nevertheless just scored over two million hits on YouTube. This pale copy carries no clear message, but it manages to make Hillary Clinton look good in her Big Sister role. Meanwhile, the anonymous author was frankly dishonest when suggesting that the video might have been produced by Obama's team.

The concept of second-hand humor is similar to that of second-hand creativity. What I mean is that somebody invents a great joke, and then other dim-witted folk believe they can be funny by constructing insipid variants of the initial story. Some kind of general principle seems to be at play, meaning that second-hand things are inevitably dull. In the village, the witty innkeeper once invented a disdainful description for the endless series of new girlfriends, often mature ladies, whom his buddy used to bring along to the bar on the back of his motorcycle. The innkeeper referred to them by a French expression that can be translated as second-hand women.

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