I personally subscribe to the idea that art is meaningless without its context. The question I’ve recently been asking is: How important are specific influences to the context? I’ve been on a kick of reading books and listening to music that my favorite artists have said have been major influences. This is an attempt to better understand where they are coming from.
A weird thing has happened, though. I’ve started to change my mind about how important this is. It seems as if the non-major influences are more important. The stuff that has randomly seeped in from all over the place is sort of what makes it original.
Some examples. In The Broom of the System, not only does one of the main characters carry a copy of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations around, but the title also refers to an important aphorism in that work. Clearly you will have a hard time reading this without at least some peripheral knowledge of that work. This is a case where reading the influence is very important.
Panic at the Disco’s new album is supposedly a reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To me this reference is almost not worth noting. The band itself does note this influence, but truly the similarities are that the songs are upbeat and there is a brass section. If every band that used a brass section with their upbeat songs had to note the Beatles as an influence, then we would be missing the point of influences. The interesting parts are where they differ from this traditional pop sound. There are definitely folk and other non-pop influences like skipping beats on the lead in to the chorus. This is a case where major influences can safely be ignored.
Then there are in between cases where it is probably good to know what the tradition that the work is coming from is about, but the specifics aren’t necessary (like the Beat generation writers).
What do you guys think? How important are specific influences to interpreting a work of art?