What writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists have drawn on to produce great work.

Influence is one of those words that can have a wide variety of meanings, depending on the
context. It sometimes has a negative connotation such as when it is used to describe questionable tactics deployed to achieve an end. The practice of pulling strings to jump the queue or bypass certain checks when trying to procure a driving license or other government document reeks of undue influence.

There is also the other kind of potentially dangerous influence – of alcohol and other addictive substances. It’s the type of effect that impairs one’s ability to think clearly and perform tasks such as operating a vehicle, competently. Luckily, driving under the influence or a DUI violation is a serious and punishable offence in most places.

But usually when we talk of influence, we are largely focused on its positive outcomes. There are people in our lives – friends, family and mentors – who influence us with their thoughts, support and advice. There are books and movies that have an impact on the way we think about and view the world.

One indisputably positive form is creative influence – the sources that writers, musicians and other artists draw on to produce powerful work with far-reaching impact.

Writers, for one, are definitely influenced by the work of others. What then ends Ωup on the pages of a book is not original in the purest sense of the word but a hybrid of ideas and writing styles that have made their way into the author’s arsenal over time.

This, of course, could prove to be problematic if a certain form of influence becomes so apparent in the final work that it borders on copying. This is where inspiration crosses over into infringement. Although writers who are accused of plagiarism usually claim to have lifted text and imagery sub-consciously, without actually realizing that the words they were using were not their own.

One bestselling author, however, has no hesitation in admitting that the ideas of others have been used in her stories – although in a completely legitimate way. JK Rowling has cited many literary influences – including Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Bible – on her hugely successful Harry Potter stories.

In interviews, Rowling demonstrates tremendous clarity on her multiple sources of creative influence and the manner in which she has leveraged them in her work. A wiki article on the subject quotes Rowling talking about how a certain device used by Shakespeare was incorporated in her story of wizards and magic:

“What if [Voldemort] never heard the prophecy?”, she said, “It’s the Macbeth idea. If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen?”

Reflecting on this influence on another occasion, Rowling said that “the prophecy” (like the one the witches make to Macbeth), becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made.”

Musicians are often asked about their creative influences. But as the the lead singer in a band writes in this Wired article: “The question feels impossible to answer, because influence is a muddy thing. When writing music, sounds and phrases often appear unbidden, the result of some long strange mental percolation.”

Still, many musicians can point to some unmistakable influences on their work. Bob Dylan, for example, is said to have helped the Beatles grow up, both from a pharmacological and musical perspective. It’s well documented that he introduced them to marijuana but it is also true that he helped them hone their lyric writing and compositional skills, enabling them to progress from being a ‘teenybopper pop phenomenon to true artistic leaders of their generation.’

Filmmakers are another group of artists that borrow from the techniques of others to boost their own storytelling impact. Steven Spielberg whose body of work covers sci-fi, action and humanistic themes, is one such filmmaker. Although his movies – ET, the Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List – are successful in their own right, they include elements of other movies that Spielberg counts among his favorites. For example, both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. seem to have adopted the theme and treatment – encompassing friendly alien visits and a growing bond with human protagonists – that Robert Wise used in his sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

With painting and similar art forms, more than one type of influencing technique can converge to enable work that is revolutionary in style and aesthetics. This was certainly true of the work of Pablo Picasso. As a website on the celebrated Spanish artist says, “it was a confluence of influences – from Paul Cézanne and Henri Rousseau, to archaic and tribal art – that encouraged Picasso to lend his figures more structure and ultimately set him on the path towards Cubism, in which he deconstructed the conventions of perspective that had dominated painting since the Renaissance.”

Picasso applied this new technique brilliantly to ‘Guernica’, an abstract black and white mural-sized painting that is viewed as one of the modern era’s most powerful anti-war statements. Picasso certainly knew how to make a splash. He unveiled the large piece at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 so that millions of visitors could walk by and imbibe its message.

It’s a message that, as a Khan Academy write-up puts its, “still feels intensely relevant today”.

Alterpoint is a column that appears in Viewpoint, a quarterly published by The PRactice. It looks at connections between life and the arts.