A Kind Of Artless Flattery

Written in one of my old notebooks is a quote. All I can gather from the notes around it is that it came from a magazine interview. I don’t know who was interviewed or in what magazine. All I can ascertain is that the interviewee was complaining about having his or her work copied. The interviewee explained how the famous adage “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is but a portion of the whole quote, taken out of context for the benefit of those doing the copying. According to the interviewee, and this is what is on my notebook, the full quote is:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and originality is the sincerest form of criticism.”

The quote sprang to mind last week when Madonna, stay with me, launched her new tour. 

Don’t Go For Second Best - A line from Express Yourself

During the months leading to the release of her new album Madonna was asked how she felt about Lady Gaga as it looked like Gaga was on a path to collide with her as the reigning epic pop artist. In particular Madonna was constantly asked how she felt about Gaga’s hit Born This Way sounding incredibly close to her hit Express Yourself. In one interview she famously answered by calling Gaga’s song “reductive.” 

Last week Madonna premiered her new tour, which includes a performance of Express Yourself that is equal parts cover, mashup, homage, and dismissal of Gaga’s Born This Way. Performed in front of Roy Lichtenstein-inspired graphics displayed on the largest video screens ever used for a concert and without altering the music in any way, she seamlessly went from singing Express Yourself to Born This Way and concluded by also singing the chorus of another one of her songs She’s Not Me. As if to drive the point home further during the Born This Way parts of the song the dancers are copying Gaga’s choreography. When I saw this the part of my brain that loves pop culture as much as it loves technology almost could not process the many layers of meaning and commentary that were infused in what is at the core of it a heavily accessorized performance of a great pop hook. 

I’m Beautiful In My Way - A line from Born This Way

Recently rumors have been swirling in the blogosphere that Microsoft is going to introduce a version of Office for the iPad before the year is over. This is equal parts surprising and inevitable. Not one to be left behind, earlier this week Google announced the acquisition of QuickOffice connecting Office-compatible files between mobile apps and Google’s own web services. Google also showcased new Google Maps features, a few days before Apple is expected to announce new non-Google Map functionality in iOS during WWDC. All of these facts have left the part of my brain that loves technology as much as it loves pop culture almost befuddled with what is at the core of it differently accessorized versions of the same technology.  

I Know I Can Do It Better - A line from She’s Not Me

If everything is a remix, and all creative work builds on what came before then why have I begun to feel like pop culture, technology and pretty much every thing else is collapsing on itself? Why does it feel like every one is on a quest to be the most original (re)producer? Is it that the time between original creation and remix is shrinking exponentially, where soon we will be creating the original, the imitation, the remix and the reboot at the same time?

Let’s return to the quote that opened this post. But before we do so, this is the part where I tell you that Madonna’s song Express Yourself contains an obvious sample of Respect Yourself by The Staple Singers. 

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and originality is the sincerest form of criticism.”

I needed and wanted to find the origin of this quote. I have searched as comprehensively as I can only to find no references to the full quote. It appears this version of it, the version in my notebook, is completely made up. 


This proverbial expression dates from the early 19th century, although versions of it that paraphrased the same thought existed well before then.

The first of these alternate versions is found in a biography of Marcus Aurelius by Jeremy Collier and André Dacier, titled Emperor Marcus Antoninus his conversation with himself, 1708:

You should consider that Imitation is the most acceptable part of Worship, and that the Gods had much rather Mankind should Resemble, than Flatter them.

A nearer stab at the current version comes in the English newspaper The Spectator in 1776, written by Joseph Addison and others, 1776:

Imitation is a kind of artless flattery.

The full monty as far as this proverb is concerned was given by Charles Caleb Colton, in Lacon: or, Many things in few words, 1820:

Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.

Creative work, technology, pop culture, even life, is a collection of successive variations on a theme differentiatied only by defaults and taste. The key to growth is to expose ourselves to as many themes as possible, to change the defaults. Ultimately, if you have something to say the best way to say it is to make something original. 

Antonio Ortiz

Antonio Ortiz has always been an autodidact with an eclectic array of interests. Fascinated with technology, advertising and culture he has forged a career that combines them all. In 1991 Antonio developed one of the very first websites to market the arts. It was text based, only available to computer scientists, and increased attendance to the Rutgers Arts Center where he had truly begun his professional career. Since then Antonio has been an early adopter and innovator merging technology and marketing with his passion for art, culture and entertainment. For a more in-depth look at those passions, visit SmarterCreativity.com.

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