I spent some credit card bonus points and picked up a book I'd been eyeing for some time, the complete book designs of legendary Japanese graphic artist and all-around (counter-)cultural presence Tadanori Yokoo. There's another book that covers his poster work, and I have that pegged to pick up at some point in the future, but this cinderblock of a tome has enough in it to keep me busy for a while.
Tadanori's one of those artists whose work is impossible to mistake for anyone else's — fiercely colorful, full of powerful juxtapositions and daring arrangements. Some of the work covered was familiar — e.g., his collaborations with Yukio Mishima — but it was shocking to see how many other works I recognized and didn't realize had been his. E.g., I had no idea he had been responsible for the amazing melting-colored design work for the original publication of Koji Suzuki's Ring cycle of novels in Japan. I was, honestly, jealous. It was hard not to be.
When an artist has a distinct, unmistakable style, other artists have a couple of common reactions. The first is envy: "I wish I had that kind of eye." This envy can be constructive, in that it can drive you to try and find your own way to look at things. Or it can be destructive, in that it just inspires you to steal the other person's thunder, and end up producing pale clones of others' works. The second response it often engenders is constructive analysis: "Why is it this way and no other?" The just-so answer rarely satisfies. People want a reason for why something looks the way it does — some sense it isn't all arbitrary, so that they might also know how to make informed decisions for their own work. They want to know they, too, can make such enlightened choices.
It's always important to recognize creative envy and work with it instead of against it. Once I could recognize I was jealous of Tadanori's talent, I had to ask myself: what can I learn from his work that isn't just going to amount to imitating it? To understand that I had to do more than just look at it and feel jealous. I had to think a little about what the context of each work was — who the client was, what the moment in time was like when it was created, what it might have been in response to or in contrast to. People have a bad tendency to think of art without the context that it first appeared in — they just see what's in front of them, and respond to that.
The more context you have for something, the easier it is to put your own response (including your jealousy) into context, and thus not let it bulldoze you. I should add as a postscript that one of the side effects of thinking about what I saw in that book led to my first piece of cover art in a while — for a future book that badly needed it. More on that in another post.