Welcome To The Magpie Generation

Observatory, The Arts


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.

14 comments on “Welcome To The Magpie Generation”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Absolutely with you on this.
    I have often muttered this to my wife: “Magpies stealing from everywhere. No original thought. Boring beyond tears. Nobody ringing in anything new. Copy, copy, crappy. Create for once.”
    It’s all patch-work, or quilting: little bits taken, stolen or snitched from other work, stitched together with a hot needle and thrown over an old the plot.
    “Another season of reality, doctor, cop, and women on the verge of whatever shows coming this fall.” “How delightfully Owen MacEwok has created the latest in this long series. Those attending the first week of shows will be handed a pencil and quiz card on entry, the first viewer to get all 34 references correct will receive a box of popcorn in the lobby on the way out.” Oh joy.

  2. snowy says:

    Rather that slather links all over the place, I’ll point to a couple of things to search for, if anybody feels so inclined.

    “Everything is a Remix” a short series on copying and innovation, [does get a bit wibbly at times].

    “Raiders of the Lost Archive” an interesting little split-screen show that matches shot for shot footage.

    [Though the truth to tell it has ever been thus, and it will ever be so. Everything is on a ‘loop’, humans live longer and commercial pressure has made the ‘loop’ shorter. So what would only be ‘seen’ once in a lifetime, now pops up several times during a lifespan.

    Ideas now spread much faster, and wider than they ever did before. But even in the 1950’s there was an exchange of styles going on in film, between John Ford and Akira Kurasawa.]

  3. pheeny says:

    What was it that Picasso said? “Mediocre artists borrow but great artists steal”

  4. John says:

    While everyone else is heaping praise on that crapola piece of TV called American Horror Story I’m glad that someone else besides me has seen it for the dreck “homage” it really is. Besides being thoroughly derivative of 70s horror cinema and stealing from Bava and Argento and others it’s an incomprehensilbe mess of a story. Why has Jessica Lange stuck with it for so long?

  5. Ste says:

    What’s happening to Mapp & Lucia?
    Is there a new tv adaptation?

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    I’d say the cycle is about a decade long, unless the original idea has been done to death and than 20 years. These measures do not necessarily include U.S. TV shows!

  7. martin says:

    Cory Doctorow covered this in Pirate Cinema- set in London(!)

  8. snowy says:

    I think the loop used to be about a 30 year period, it ties in with what was held to be a ‘generation’. So if you were a consumer of ‘culture’, starting at 20 and finishing at 60 say. Then you would only see some thing twice, and only have a distant memory of the original.

    [And a form of the loop is what makes Grandparents ‘cool’, Children react against their Parents values, those very values are in part a reaction against the values of their parents ie. the grandparents. So if you invert something twice it comes out the same. Because Grandparent likes, Child dislikes, because Child dislikes, Grandchild likes.

    Ergo Grandparent and Grandchild like the some thing. And of course they would never conspire together just to annoy the Parent. Oh no, never.]

    And there is a massive capacity problem, there is too much. Once there was only one cinema screen to fill for a week, now there are eight! Once TV was 2 or 3 channels that ran 8-10 hours a day, now there are hundreds running all day and all night.

    And each like a hatchling demanding to be continuously fed. Never used to be a problem in the UK, bit stuck? Get some cheap US programmes, that had already been syndicated, no residual value left in the home market, ‘cheap as chips’. Not anymore everything is an ‘asset’ to be squeezed as hard as possible.

    On Picasso, to (mis)quote Ms Rice-Davis, “Well he would say that wouldn’t he!”. I wouldn’t have trusted him to keep within the lines of a “Paint by Numbers” set.

    [But I doubt even he would have had the front to try to flog some dirty knickers on an unmade bed as art.

    Even Duchamp must have given his ‘fountain’ a quick once over with a bit of ‘Le Jif’, before he signed it.]

  9. snowy says:

    That was a bit long, let’s have a bit of levity, about the ‘dangers of imagination’.

    I was going to put a link – here – but it will get trapped in the moderation queue and cause somebody the extra bother of dragging it back out.

    I wonder if I can smuggle it in via the screen name? Don’t know, [but NVNG], if the screen name is orange, clicking will take you to a YouTube clip of the ‘Penultimate Supper’.

    [It’s an old clip, a lot will remember it]

  10. snowy says:

    Oh it does seem to, today has just been made of ‘Win’.

  11. Ken Murray says:

    Surely the music industry has to be the most blatant and for that matter unapologetic culprit? Now that we have X-factor and their like, churning out ersatz covers of songs like some dantesque karaoke (or if you prefer; stars in their eyes minus the costumes), people are not even attempting any kind of artistry anymore as it’s just not seen as economically viable nowadays? Ok a bit generalised I know but it’s all my own work.

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    I wouldn’t mind if these ‘talent’ shows threw up genuine talent, but for every winner, there’s half a dozen other almost rans that also seem to get a record deal/tv show/magazine column. Even worse it seems to be fixed anyway, before the series even started last year Simon Cowell said he wanted a ‘dog act’ to win, lo and behold both the UK and US series were won by dog acts. . .

  13. Mike Brough says:

    Chris, who IS on your hero list?

  14. Steve says:

    There are lots of magpies in the music world too. They call it “sampling”; I call it stealing. Especially when it comes to (C)Rap.

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