Art, Imitation, and the Power of Flawed Media

John Ohno
John Ohno
Nov 7, 2019 · 5 min read

I don’t think that I can fully support any artist who fails to acknowledge that some of their work is mediocre (because such a person won’t be able to identify possibilities for growth). Art is not independent geniuses channeling transcendent greatness from the platonic realm. It’s a conversation between excited nerds about things they enjoy (including the problems with the things they enjoy). Imitation may be “the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”, but that makes it more laudable rather than less so.

An important & underappreciated facet of fandom is the ability & willingness to enjoy flawed works for, rather than in spite of, their flaws — not in a shadenfreude sense but in a hot-and-cold media sense. A flawed work is open in a number of ways:

  • Flawed works are approachable — they invite fixes & elaborations (it’s easier to write fanfiction if you think you can approach or exceed the quality of the original material).
  • They demonstrate that stuff can be enjoyable without perfectly-developed craft — which is inspirational, since it shows budding creatives that the things they make while honing their skills are not worthless. This also lets you connect to the creator on a human level. You can follow their development from excited-but-amateurish to excited-but-expert. You can learn the same lessons they did by looking at how they changed the way they handled things over time. (This isn’t just about bringing creators down to earth. It’s about inspiring people to get started on their own work.)

Imitation has an important role in self-development: you imitate the stuff you like, and through imitation, you either exhaust what you like about it, leap beyond your influences in craft, or take it in a new direction by emphasizing, deemphasizing, or adding elements.

Imitation also has an important role in cultural development. Just as talk therapy takes raw psychic ejecta and, through discussion, integrates it back into the personality, the dialectic of popular media takes strange and numinous ideas and integrates them into collective mind. (This is part of the function of the Spectacle. But, it doesn’t necessarily need to be part of the superstructure’s coddling & justification of the base. It’s dialectic. Every cultural change comes out of this kind of synthesis.)

When an imitation is recognizable, artists can trace lineages of influence back to the raw source (which itself isn’t exactly raw) and see what else can be mined from it — i.e., what else is strange enough that synthesizing with the norm produces frission. We can think of this as dialectic, or as the Spectacle consuming all that opposes it, or as the dispersion of novelty as dye disperses into water. When dye disperses into water, the eddies are sometimes more interesting than the droplet of dye was.

To extend the dye metaphor: Liquid dye itself is somewhat diluted. You can create new colors by mixing different dyes. Sometimes the chemicals in dyes react with each other to produce a color that is not the sum of the colors of the original dyes. This is scenius.

In other words, while pulp is diluted as it becomes dispersed into popular media, producing interesting eddies, it itself is the result of other material being diluted into a smaller container & changing as it interacts with the contents of that container.

(This is why institutions like Junkfood Cinema, Shockwaves, Fangoria, and Vinegar Syndrome are so important. Talking honestly about pieces of art that are vital, acknowledging their flaws and loving it both despite and because of them, and uncovering hidden gems & lineages, is what keeps future art coming. Crate digging produces social capital because it is a vital part of social health in a society dominated by time-binding technologies.)

The standard example for imitation being fundamental to a creative legacy is Tarantino, but Tarantino is awfully divisive, so let’s talk about Hideaki Anno, who is basically the japanese Tarantino. More specifically, let’s talk about Evangelion.

Evangelion was directed by Anno, with creative contributions from a staff at Gainax that was almost as nerdy and deeply into the details of pulp media as Anno was. Evangelion is great not despite its imitation but because of it.

This isn’t to say that Evangelion can’t be understood and appreciated unless you’ve seen all of Gundam and Space Runaway Ideon (though doing that will make you appreciate Evangelion even more). It’s more that, if you live and breathe mecha anime, tokusatsu, and 70s sci-fi, then you’re going to interpret things like government corruption, postapocalyptic rebuilding projects, cycles of abuse, and the social aspects of depression through that lens. Deep fandom (or, less charitably, being an animal of the database) lends itself to producing encyclopedic literature, and encyclopedic literature lends itself to repeated deep reading. When you combine two things that aren’t usually associated with each other and you force one through the lens of the other, you produce novelty. Each aspect opens part of your audience up to the other aspects. Evangelion is a mess & that’s why it’s transcendent.

In the case of Evangelion, we actually know what it would have been like had the mass of references been cleaned up for the sake of simplification and legibility. The first two rebuild movies are much neater, but ultimately kind of dull.

The depth of the lore and the frequency of references in Evangelion did not make it less popular than it would have otherwise been — Evangelion is well-crafted enough that the audience simply didn’t notice references they didn’t recognize. Removing them did ruin rebuild, because a lack of substance is obvious even to folks who wouldn’t have been able to analyse the substance had it been present. With the third movie they changed direction, too late, alienating both new and old audiences with something at least interesting, new, & wild. It’s a glorious mess and will probably be reappraised in 20 years, the way Halloween 3 and Exorcist 2 have been, but not in time to profit Khara or properly fund the fourth film.

Evangelion got people who wanted to see robots fight kaiju to watch a character study about mentally ill children struggling to self-actualize in the ruins of civilization under the boot of an oppressive dictatorial state. It also got people who wanted to watch character studies about mentally ill children struggling to self-actualize to watch robots fight kaiju. It did both well enough that almost everybody said “hey, I like both parts of this!” This is the power of double-mumbo-jumbo. You lose the ability to accurately and succinctly summarize a work of art for marketing purposes because the work is too interesting and novel to summarize accurately. When you do it right, dedicated fans continue to argue about it for thirty years.

When you imitate properly (in such a way that you build on your influences), you promote your influences while at the same time making it possible for fans of your work to revisit it again and again as they accumulate new lenses to see it through. At the same time, you reframe your influences, giving your audience new lenses through which to see them too. This kind of imitation revitalizes the whole lineage in which you are working.

(This post was adapted from a twitter thread.)

John Ohno

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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