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Beware the impulse to do new stuff

A recent cultural theory backs up violin makers' love of the classics, reports Ariane Todes

Thursday, 13 September 2012

In today’s culture, copying is seen in a negative way. Business, politics, consumerism – everything is driven by innovation, the need for new ideas, originality. This was part of the thesis of a lecture I went to on Sunday given by Mark Earls, author of I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behaviour. ‘Knowing something has been copied spoils your enjoyment of it,’ he explained, citing George Harrison ripping off He’s So Fine for his best-selling My Sweet Lord. In our culture, we regard copies as ‘worthless and hollow’ and copying as ‘stealing’.

According to Earls this is all a terrible waste of energy and of our natural talents. We should value copies and the act of emulating other people. Businesses and public services, particularly, should spend more time getting better at what they already do rather than trying to innovate constantly. For a start, copying is efficient: thinking originally is hard work, so why not save time by copying others? We’re good at it – he offered evidence that a baby aged 42 minutes tries to mimic facial expressions. Copying is an essential learning skill, it’s the best strategy for interacting with other people and it saves you from feeling alone.

As I listened to Earls entertainingly illustrate his points, I could think of only one anomaly to his thesis. A culture where copying is seen in a positive way, not only part of the learning process, but as an end in itself? Welcome to the world of stringed instruments, where the majority of makers try faithfully to recreate the work of one man who lived three hundred years ago.

And is this a bad thing? According to Earls, it turns out that copying actually produces new ideas. He proved this with a neat audience-participation exercise in which he had a line of people face in one direction. The person at the back invented a series of three gestures, which the next person turned to face them to learn and copy. This happened one at a time down the line. Of course the original gestures lasted very few iterations before totally morphing into different ones, with each person in the line interpreting and inventing something totally unique.

It seems that this is true of the making world, too. Of course there are cases of out-and-out fraud, where even experts have been fooled by the resulting instruments, but these are relatively few and far between. For the majority of luthiers who spend a lot of time with our instrument posters, enthusiastically following every curve and measurement of Cremonese classics, the results might be termed copies, but mostly they are brand new, to them, and to the world.

Of course, this can’t be termed innovation, by any means, and perhaps the downside of this reverence for the past is indeed the rarity of genuinely new concepts in the violin making world. But Earls' theory suggests that this might be a good thing, as he advocates finally: ‘Beware the impulse to do new stuff’ and 'Rejoice in other people's ideas'.

What do you think? Are makers right to spend so much time copying the classic makers or should they innovate more extensively? Are the two mutually exclusive?

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