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  Eclecticism (from Greek eklegein, ‘to pick out’) was an ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy whose adherents picked and chose from ideas in other philosophical systems, without following any of them totally: the exponents best remembered today are Cicero and Seneca. Pliny the Elder took a similar approach to the investigation of phenomena, studying and writing about everything from military tactics to the age of rocks, from the life-cycle of seaweed to the best way to educate children. In the arts, eclecticism is a similar principle: taking your ideas, magpie-like, from wherever you fancy, and adapting them to fit your inspiration. It was a (rather self-conscious) movement in the architecture and fine art of the Renaissance, perhaps in reaction against the vast number of ‘isms’ described and prescribed at that time. In the same way, and perhaps for similar reasons, it has been a governing principle of postmodernism in all the arts, creators reacting against the strait-jacketing ‘methods’ and reforming programmes which were such characteristic features of the first half of the 20th century.

The problem with eclecticism (if it is a problem) is that most geniuses are eclectic and most geniuses have imitators: therefore, what begins as eclecticism very quickly becomes a style, and then, when critics and scholars get their hands on it, a school. The truth is, perhaps, that artistic innovation is an organic process, and that what we perceive as schools and movements are merely descriptive labels, irrelevant to true creators but handy for also-rans. KMcL



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