Kelly Kessler asked me about the point behind the point of my last post on “The anatomy of an artistic theft”: How do I feel about the issue of originality in pottery? I will share my response in just a bit, but I wanted to first make the point that the question of originality can indicate a specific intention or sometimes merely a side effect of our other intentions. In other words, we can aim at being original, or we can aim at other things and the results can simply play out as original (or not).
I sometimes get the sense that contemporary art only respects novelty, and that therefor many artists are driven only to express something independently original. And it should be very obvious that this is an intention that only incidentally puts our selves in the frame. Being ‘original’ does not mean the same thing as being ‘myself’, does it? If we were to aim at being ourselves what if this meant that sometimes, or quite often, we were not original? So my question, then, is whether it is more important to be original or to be true to yourself, whatever that may mean?
True originality may only be possible in a vacuum. The reality is that we all stand on the shoulders of things that have come before us. We can’t help but use the tools that have been provided for us. And often what we can add to that collective culture lies in giving our own interpretations of these details, sometimes just a twist of emphasis, and only rarely is it something entirely new.
So why have I contrasted originality with being oneself? Ben Carter makes this case in his excellent post from this morning. If we are merely cherry picking, the details we make use of can be fragments that don’t add up, and the message they convey can then be hard to figure out. But when the details become integrated in a larger whole they can speak with a larger coherence. They will make sense because they represent something that belongs together.
Originality is marked out by being disconnected from other things. So in a sense, trying to be original is trying to be disconnected, and our originality may or may not fit with the rest of who we are. If we are aiming at being original we are not always aiming at being ourselves. We may even get forced into things we don’t like just for the sake of originality. Does this seem potentially misguided to anyone else? Trying new things can be enlightening and valuable, and maybe an important occasional activity, but to make ‘originality’ our life’s work at the cost of things we already believe in seems odd.
Sometimes we are schizophrenic and our parts don’t always fit well together. Sometimes we are inconsistent and contradictory. But we also have ways of expressing ourselves that point to a larger whole (maybe including our inconsistencies and contradictions). And representing this is how we can also ‘be ourselves’. I have learned this, I like this, I am feeling like this today. For me, the issue of originality is just a distraction, a side issue from the really important work of just making the things I like to make.
Here is my response to Kelly:
Thanks for the enticing questions, Kelly!
Actually, this post was sort of a response to my previous post on “close encounters with the collective unconscious”. In that post the point I was trying to make is that we often get pressure to stand out by contributing original work, but in many instances this originality is only very close to the surface or merely disguised by our own lack of focus or our own poor understanding of our actual influences. And the funny thing (to me) is that because we are somewhat obsessed with this need for originality we overlook the fundamental ways in which we are usually not original. We often don’t even recognize that, “Hey, I’ve actually seen that shape somewhere else before” (for instance). The similarity of many particulars is an inescapable limitation on all our creative efforts. We simply are not always aware of how indebted we are in even our most basic artistic expressions. So in a sense, the priority on the question of originality kind of misses what I’m aiming at.
Because of a variety of factors and influences we may simply be stuck rehashing ideas of others that we have already digested. Or, as I suggested in that other post, there may be deeper limitations on what things are possible either for the human imagination or for the physics and logic of geometries we can express. The idea that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m not claiming any answer to this, but I thought my little case study of my own post-mortem would be a good example of just how original a ‘new’ form can sometimes fail to be. But since I’m not aiming at originality this is an obsession that makes little impression on me.
So I guess what I was trying to communicate is that the practice of avoiding influences has limitations (avoiding influences as the flip side of a need for originality). And that therefor there can be positive use made of actively pursuing new source material. Not pursuing originality, in other words, but pursuing new things to try out, whether self originated or not. It doesn’t matter. We should feel we have permission to use existing ideas of others and not fret so much about originality. But I have noticed that among some artists there seems to be an actual fear of contamination by other people’s art. Not just that they need to focus on their own projects but that even a hint of sharing an idea is unconscionable. They would rather reinvent some version of the wheel and put their name on it as long as they can ignore that wheels are fairly commonplace.
I suppose that if this is an attitude that works for some folks I have to accept that, but it does seem slightly dishonest: We simply can’t control all the influences that effect us or when they will impinge on our creative processes. Its as if not knowing an influence makes it palatable. And this attitude places not knowing where something may have originated as a higher virtue than consciously using other people’s ideas (stealing). Its like pretending that food that was dropped on the floor is edible as long as we don’t know about it: If contamination isn’t (or is) acceptable why should knowing about it make any difference? And if the contamination of ideas is inescapable isn’t pretending ignorance somewhat dishonest? If we actually care about being original then it would seem to be in our interest to be as open about our source material as possible. In other words, not sticking our heads in the sand so often.
So I guess to finally get around to answering your question I would say that originality is the wrong issue. And maybe this is what you mean by calling it something of a red herring. We have put originality on a pedestal, and worship it regardless of issues of quality, craftsmanship, or beauty (or usefulness, as you suggest). Originality is at most a stew of ingredients that many other people also use. It lies very close to the surface in most cases. And I would argue that what passes for originality is often less interesting than the works of humble craftsmen just aiming for beauty and for quality and craftsmanship.
Originality only has this prominence in modern art because high end galleries, academic institutions, and museums have sold us on the idea. In my opinion this attitude has gutted the actual relevance of a lot of contemporary art. It speaks to fewer people and with less clarity. When these institutions traded away beauty and craftsmanship for the project of breaking new ground the wholesome center and solid foundation of art was lost.
So I would say that originality is a misleading issue. But originality is a mantra for disciples of the elitist institutions. They place it as priority #1. Planting a flag in virgin creative forests is their only real measure of success. Breaking new ground is their only currency of value. But to me it seems that all this exploration of the artistic fringe is like an ever expanding bubble. The stuff out at the limits may or may not be interesting, but inside there is nothing. The bubble is empty. And the skin is being stretched ever so tight.
It used to be that art started with beauty, worked through craftsmanship, and ended with quality. This was a solid foundation of what it meant to be art (In the sense that all cultures throughout human history have expressed themselves creatively). Beauty connects a human artistic tradition to the society it was meant to serve. Contemporary art serves a small elite crowd who can afford and (maybe) understand its pretensions.
I would like to think that when things fall out in original ways that something interesting may have happened. But this is a separate issue from whether what was created was worth giving life to, how it adds to human expression. Beauty never has to apologize. Humans have expressed the need for beauty in their lives as long as they have crafted material culture to manifest it. This seems to be a core value for human life. And when cultures became too complex for each individual to be in charge of creating beauty we gave the project to specialists who would preserve the ideas of a culture’s beauty for us.
But today beauty is old hat for the professional artists, and is usually trumped by the shifting target of novelty. But originality for the sake of being original may or may not add value to human experience. When it is done well originality sometimes strikes a chord with other human beings. Occasionally we are amused, sometimes bemused, and often we are merely confused. Contemporary art often winds up on the fringes of irrelevance and esoteric justification. Even what sometimes passes as original is often merely a new shiny surface. Just don’t pick too deeply beneath. There are visual references, technical tools, and possibly even the limits of function and human imagination that it was built from.
So I guess for me, wanting to talk about originality is often the excuse to neglect more interesting concerns. I know that I personally think the idea of originality is less fascinating than whether I like what is being done. In my own work I give myself permission to use anything and everything. Originality is almost beside the point (for me).
But if originality is all that academics want to talk about do we need to be sucked into their myopic little fantasy? Are we right to disown beauty and function and craftsmanship so casually? And yet we do. We often unintentionally treat originality as a siren song. I’m just looking for a few brave souls to tie themselves to the mast, to bind themselves to the rigging, to hear the call but to ignore it.