The late novelist Shelby Foote often told the story of an exchange he once had with his friend and fellow author William Faulkner. They were driving somewhere together in Mississippi one day and Foote suddenly turned to his companion and said “You know, I have every reason to believe that I’ll be a better writer than you.” Faulkner raised an eyebrow and replied “Oh? That may well be. Why?” Foote answered “Well, your influences are Flaubert and Conrad, and my influences are Proust and you, and my writers are better than your writers.”
I don’t know of many anecdotes that do a better job than that of making the point that in the art world, influences are important. Indeed, they’re formative whether one is a novelist, poet, painter, actor, comedian, or musician. An individual’s art is at least half about influences. It’s true that in many ways art is a world in and of itself, one that requires some getting to know before you can really understand what you’re looking at or listening to. Understanding the presence of influences and how artists interact with them is one of the most fundamental and effective ways of doing this.
Clifford Brown was born in 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware. When he was about fifteen, he started playing trumpet and before he was 20 was a regular in the Philadelphia jazz scene. He started recording in 1952 and was soon playing with the biggest names in the business and leading combos of his own.
Three years later his career was cut short when he was killed in a car wreck, but by that point he himself had become one of the hottest players around and his tone and style a profound influence on younger players. Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, both 8 years his junior, were two of them. In 1963 Morgan recorded one of the most popular jazz albums ever, called “The Sidewinder,” and Hubbard went on to be a central player in the jazz world for decades, receiving an NEA Jazz Master award in 2006. You can hear Brown in how they play.
Art is a chain of influences, and to trace that chain backward in time and then follow it forward again is to gain fundamental perspective on any artist. Knowing the influences can even bring artist and viewer closer together.
The advent of Modernism in the second half of the 19thcentury made influences into an even more vivid component of art, as it introduced the strong compulsion for artists to set themselves apart from what had come before. Influences suddenly could be negative, for lack of a better term: something that artists reacted against and from which they separated themselves. This change, however, did nothing to reduce the basic importance of influences for the viewer or listener. Quite the contrary: Someone who sought to understand a Modernist painter or a composer could gain as much insight from knowing what the artist in question did not want to be like. Suddenly, all those odd harmonies and rhythmic discontinuities, or those garish unnatural colors and disjointed perspectives let the viewer know what the artist was thinking.
It’s well known, for instance, that in the 1930s American painter Jackson Pollock studied at the Art Students League in New York City under Thomas Hart Benton, a man 23 years his senior and a pioneer of what came to be called Regionalism. Pollock’s early canvases too were landscapes with swirling shapes, clearly influenced by his mentor. A viewer can make more sense of Pollock’s later move to abstraction by knowing what he’s distancing himself from.
Jackson Pollock, Cotton Pickers, c. 1935
The chain of influence in art can span years, decades, and even centuries. You don’t have to study directly under an artist to be influenced by him or her. When I started playing bass I honed in on two or three bass players I really wanted to play like, but I never came close to meeting any of them. But it didn’t matter. Knowing that they were my influences would help you make sense of the way I played and how I constructed bass lines. They still influence me.
Art is, among other things, a chain of influences that explains where we are at any one time and how we got there. It explains bebop just as much as it explains abstract expressionism. And our knowing it helps art become a richer experience for all of us.