Good, thought-provoking article, Will.
I think every artist should be clear about what is considered imitation, copying/duplication, and creativity. Also, the term cookie-cutter bonsai should be defined with more accuracy.
That's because these terms often mean different things to different people, and are used interchangeably, without giving proper thought.
Copying has always been a good way of learning the craftmanship of any art form. Bonsai is no different. The advantage of copying is that, instead of wasting time with trying to figure out what works and what not, one can follow the path of well-established artists. The disadvantage (if one can call it as such) is that, after someone becomes quite good at copying these works, he/she keeps producing them indefinitely, forgetting that this is only a studying tool.
I see imitating as somewhat different from copying. This is the most prevalent form of creating a bonsai. Here, the emphasis is not on achieving a tree that strongly resembles the original, but instead, the focus is on well-executed techniques that one sees on other bonsai.
Mindless execution of techniques leads to cookie-cutter bonsai. When creating a cookie-cutter bonsai, one is not concerned about the uniqueness of the outcome. There is no story to tell, and no feelings to express. It's just a mindless application of well-executed techniques what matters.
What happens, though is that sometimes the above bonsaist is fooled by randomness. This means that when we mindlessly apply good techniques to a great yamadori, in spite of our lack of artistic talent, the outcome can still be a good-looking bonsai: nature has just helped us out here. And this tricks us into believing that we've created something very original. Basically, instead of crediting nature, we will try to take all the credits.
Imitation is another good learning tool, but it shouldn't be viewed as the bonsaist's final goal in life.
And finally, there is originality. Here, the artist has from the outset a definite goal in mind. This goal often changes throughout the development of the tree. This is the best part of creating a bonsai: discovering and un-covering the hiddent messages that the tree sends us. Here the techniques are just there to help us achieve our goal. They are entirely subjugated to our ideas, and often ignored. Sometimes, when we are in trouble, they offer a great helping hand.
A tree that has a gret story, but expressed with rudimentary techniques is much more precious to me than a tree that offers nothing but great technique. That's because the first one has infinite potential, while the second one is a dead-end street.