Welcome To The Magpie Generation
Where do ideas come from?
Last week the Guardian website started a weekly round-up of best commercials (not a new concept; back in the 1970s ‘Newcomers’ used to round up commercials at 9:00am every Monday on ITV) but these Best Commercials are themselves preceded by a commercial, in this case a crappy one for instant coffee. It’s followed by a Best Commercial featuring Tatum Channing and a fat girl, which it transpires is based on a TV comedy sketch, and most of what follows is pinched from other sources.
For years, copywriters and art directors went into meltdowns of denial about the origination of their material, but now it’s openly acknowledged that most good advertising ideas are stolen from other sources, which is at least a step forward. Theatre is spun out of films, films are rebooted, popular books are endlessly extended beyond their shelf life as franchises (Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre and now Mapp & Lucia). Photoshoots reference other photographers, art collages other art.
Welcome to the Magpie Generation.
The internet is the world’s largest image bank, and can therefore be used to visually represent anything. Nobody has to sit there thinking, ‘What if we flew an inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station?’ when they just knock it up from other sources. The result, I believe, is that ideas don’t get thought out properly, no surprises occur during creation and everything looks secondhand. I research mainly by talking to people and walking around – juxtapositions are chucked up that I would not otherwise have considered.
For the Magpie Generation, the media world is a big bran tub of borrowing – a smidgen of Tarantino here, a touch of Christopher Nolan there, a spoonful of Banksy, a hint of Bowie. I tried to watch ‘American Horror Story’ last night, a jittery OCD-driven TV show that simply smashes together every sex and horror film cliche in 3 second takes, praying it will somehow hang together – it doesn’t. It’s slutty and dumb and will drag some viewers through by the sheer gaping shock of its riveting awfulness.
It’s an argument for periodic sensory deprivation – no computer screen on, forcible boredom for a couple of hours, the chance to clear the clutter and create from scratch. It’s why writers used to go away to the country. The last time I took a vacation on a boat I was cut off from any contact with the world for ten days. I’m doing it again this year and just found out that the boat now has wi-fi.
I would have no problem with the Magpie Generation approach if it led to fresh results, but it doesn’t. Hollywood is creatively wedged in a candy-coloured CGI toilet, and in the arts there’s very little around that isn’t an ironic take on something from the past. Last week New York critics hailed ‘Matilda’ as a subversive masterpiece – they haven’t been offered anything fresh in a long time. But ‘Matilda’ is already 24 years old, a book and a film. What made it different this time was Tim Minchin, the stand-up songster whose work has not been diluted by committee, and remains full of original thinking.
And there lies the answer to originality – a line of peculiarly unique people who stretch from Minchin to Orton to Firbank to Kafka and all the way back to Proust, whose ideas fermented from original minds. The original mind is to be treasured, but the magpie mind gets the deals. It seems to me that something too original takes five years minimum to filter into the mainstream, and often never does.
When I look at names on my hero list, the only common denominator they share is an ability to create ideas that aren’t based on anyone else’s work.They’re often unsuccessful, sometimes difficult, wholly unique. The rest is just a load of magpies.