Mosaic by Sandra Millott, 1991, in Rebar Restaurant
An original artist is unable to
copy. So he has only to copy in order to be original.
— Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s clever paradox began to gnaw at me the first time I read it. The text seems contradictory and like a lot of quotes I come across on the internet, it would be easy to dismiss and forget. But when I took a moment to unravel this little knot and I found something worthwhile (...I think...).
A French modernist, Jean Cocteau was at the center of the Parisian avant garde in the early twentieth century. As a proponent of surrealism he was eager to expand our sense of reality, to discover our boundaries and fields of gravity.
This “frisson” is evident in Cocteau’s paradox. His first sentence, an original artist is unable to copy, provides our center of gravity: his premise, which we can accept, or debate. I’m inclined to allow it as something close to self-evident. The leading clause in the second sentence, he has only to copy, acts as a hinge to open the boundaries of our understanding. Because it’s impossible for an original artist to copy, when she attempts to imitate or copy others, she simply CANNOT. Therefore whatever efforts she makes to copy all result in something new and original.
Consider an example. Pablo Picasso was well known for his obsession with primitive art forms. He collected them, studied them, tried to incorporate them into his own sphere. But it was impossible for him to copy them. Every effort he made generated something unique.
I’m not surprised that Picasso and Cocteau were well acquainted. The painter and poet shared a certain approach to their work and audience. They both amuse and perplex us. Both artists open our eyes to new perspectives on the world. Fifty years later, their influence still resonates and their work rings true.