5 Thoughts: Seminal v. Derivative

1. ONE OF THE CHICKEN-OR-egg challenges of modern media (social and traditional) is their pervasive sense of nonlinear immediacy, by which I mean the everything-at-once flattening of the artistic landscape.

2. Viz.: Art which was groundbreaking when it premiered (“seminal”), but which is rendered hokey in hindsight due to later artists’ based-on-the-original productions (“derivative”). Specifically, let’s take Frankenstein’s monster, whose initial 1931 cinematic appearance caused men and women to literally cry out in terror. But these days, little kids use his hollow plastic head to collect Hallowe’en candy.

3. Without a sense of linear time or history, it’s easy to confuse seminal for derivative when encountering the derivative before the seminal. This is not only a disservice to the original work, but also to the viewers’ appreciation; unless you encounter the original first, you lose an important part of the artistic experience. E.g., Captain Renault’s line from Casablanca: “I am shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here!” The bolded part of that quote is now a widely known social media catch-phrase. Imagine the existential confusion of a socially mediated hepcat on their first viewing of that classic film.

4. This critique also includes “homage,” where an artist deliberately sows their art with references chosen from others’ earlier works. Of course, derivative homage done badly also comes off as uncreative and/or silly. An extreme example would be Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot Psycho remake, which was roundly panned by both critics and the public.

5. Is the lesson for artists to be sparing of derivative or homage-laden work? and/or for the audience to think critically about, and cultivate, their artistic knowledge-base? Only time will tell. (No pun intended.) Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the show — hopefully, in order.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *