Why Dismissing The Past Is Bad For Creativity- A Ramble

After seeing a few random articles on the internet that seemed to criticise older creative works purely because of their age (rather than taking a more nuanced view of their strengths and flaws), I’d originally planned to write a somewhat cynical and opinionated article about this attitude. But, then I realised that the attitude I was going to criticise can also be found in a lot of older works too and is actually a surprisingly timeless thing.

All creative works exist in response to the past and/or present. This is how, for good or bad, innovation happens. People become fed up with either modern or old culture and decide to do something different. I mean, this is probably one of the reasons why the British version of the awesome splatterpunk genre of horror fiction emerged in the 1970s/80s (starting with James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974 and then including authors like Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker during the 1980s.).

Before then, horror fiction tended to rely more on suspense, implication, psychological horror etc.. and it tended to be a bit more stylised, old-fashioned and/or moralistic. So, writing horror fiction set in grim “modern” locations that featured cynical social commentary, a nihilistic attitude and/or the kind of extreme gore that even the “video nasty” horror movies of the time couldn’t get away with was a refreshing rebellion against this staid old trend.

You can also see the same thing in the punk music of 1970s Britain, which was not only a rebellion against the stiflingly traditional and economically troubled society that the musicians were surrounded by, but also against the more optimistic and cheerful music of the 1960s too. The low-budget and gritty nature of punk music was also probably a reaction against the more commercial and glamourous mainstream rock music of the time too.

Interestingly, a similar thing happened with grunge music in 1990s America – which was a similar reaction against the awesome heavy metal/hard rock of the 1980s (and I’m still amazed that the ’80s were apparently a decade where both heavy metal music and horror fiction were actually mainstream and popular 🙂 ).

All creative works are a response to what has come before them. I mean, this is why we now have indie computer games that not only use 1990s-style pixel art graphics but will also often borrow gameplay elements from these brilliant older games too (and are a low-budget reaction to the many flaws of modern “AAA” games). People see something lacking in modern culture and decide to either make something new and/or revive something from the past (perhaps with a few changes to update it) in order to fill that gap.

But, why is ignoring or dismissing the past so bad for creativity?

Well, for starters, old stuff has a lot to teach us. Not only do many creative people get inspired to start writing, making art, playing music etc… because they’ve seen some classic or other that has impressed them enough to think “I want to make something like that” , but older creative works can also provide us with a lot of lessons about what does and doesn’t “work”. So, studying older works can teach you a lot about your chosen type of creativity.

For example, although 1970s-80s splatterpunk fiction was a reaction to the traditional horror fiction that had come before it, it was aware enough of the genre’s history to keep all of the good parts of older horror fiction. Although the splatterpunk genre might be famous for its over-the-top gory horror, you’ll still find a lot of “old-school” elements (eg: suspense, atmosphere, characterisation etc…) in a surprising number of vintage 1970s-80s splatterpunk novels. Why? Because they work! This is also why you’ll find these “old” things in modern horror fiction too – usually “turned up to 11” for maximum effect.

More than that, older works can also be brilliant sources of inspiration too. In order to create something “new” and original, you need to have as many different influences and inspirations as possible. You need to not only be well-versed in your chosen field (so you know what has been done before and can try either putting a new spin on it or doing something totally different), but you also need to know about different genres, different times and places, different types of creativity etc.. in order to add interesting new stuff to the things you create.

For example, the 1982 sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner” was a groundbreaking film that went on to inspire numerous other things in the sci-fi genre. When it was released, there was apparently nothing else quite like it. After all, it had taken inspiration from more than just other things in the sci-fi genre (even though it was based on a 1960s sci-fi novel ). For example, in addition to taking visual inspiration from various cities in Asia, the film also took strong visual inspiration from the old “film noir” detective movies of the 1930s-50s too.

Plus, in every age, people are still people. In other words, you’ll probably find that there is some writer, artist, musician etc… from the past that you have something in common with. After all, a lot of elements of the human condition are timeless things. Not only does this allow you to place the things you create within a much larger tradition, but it also means that you can do things like paying tribute to older stuff, reworking/remaking/parodying/critiquing these things in your work, making “spiritual successors” etc… Again, people are still people in every age of history.

So, by ignoring the past, you end up ignoring a lot of timeless stuff that can inspire you. Yes, the past certainly wasn’t perfect, but – like any age- it was a mixture of good and bad things. And, even if you absolutely despise everything from the past, then you still need to know what you are rebelling against.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂