Think your art is unique or original?

In Monday’s Art Marketing Action newsletter, I wrote the following:

"Everything has been done a million times. Sometimes you use it and it’s yours; another time you do it and it’s still theirs."

The quote is from artist Elizabeth Murray, who recently passed away. To a great extent, I believe she is right. Everything in art has been done, redone, and overdone. The trick is learning from this and putting a spin on your style to make it your own. I find that too many artists who have little foundation in the history of art are unaware of others who paved the way for them. These artists are too quick to claim originality and uniqueness without the knowledge to back it up. (This is why I loathe the word “unique” to describe one’s art.) Without that knowledge those who are more familiar with it won’t take you seriously. That’s why I encourage you to research and explore what and who came before you. Read books, visit museums, and watch educational programs and documentaries. Don’t be afraid of being influenced by others. Be afraid of being ignorant of them.

Now let me clarify.

The times to avoid using “unique” and “original” are when you are attempting to describe your style or ideas and often even your materials. “I approach the human figure in a unique way.” Ugh! Not only is it undoubtedly false, it is a weak sentence. Instead of using the word “unique,” tell us what it is about your work that makes it unique. Then you never have to use that word. As Murray said in her quote, it’s been done. It’s been done a million times. So, those two words are often poor choices and can be easily debated by anyone with a master’s degree in art or art history.

The times when it’s okay to use “unique” or “original” are when you are describing a one-of-a-kind piece of work. My preference is the latter used as a noun. “Sally had originals on the walls and reproductions in a bin.” “Unique” just sounds to gift-shoppy to use with art.

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6 comments to Think your art is unique or original?

  • A very quick look at internet artist and gallery sites and one should learn pretty quickly there’s very little that’s unique or original out there. Not that every artist doesn’t bring their own spin to what they do and see and know but if you look at a dozen sites showing paintings you will find there is a palette that is popular or a compositional twist that people are using. The same runs true in ceramics, fiber art, glass, etc. and probably has always been so. I think this is a good thing, realizing we are not so special in the way we see the world or respond to it. There are certain themes that run through certain times. We are part of something much bigger, the universal, when we create. Then we get to really get to work and concentrate on being really good at what we do. Being really good will set an artist apart every time.

  • Boy, I couldn’t DISagree more with you on this one, Alyson! In fact it HASN’T all been done before … that what keeps artists originators instead of factories. Yes, of course there are exceptions, and you’ll find a hundred landscape artists churning out everything from photo-realism to impressionistic pieces, to one or two who are really doing something different, but to refrain from calling the one or two “unique” because it’s been done before is a bit fatalistic, don’t you think? Also, the fact that someone else has explored an avenue does not negate the efforts in a similar vein of those who follow just because they are ignorant of art history. Yes, artists should know what has come before them, but they are perfectly free to explore roads previously taken by others and claim originality if they truly originate something without the influence of those they are unaware of. I just get tired of the hackneyed “nothing is new” mindset – I think it does a disservice to all artists & creators.

  • I do understand what you’re saying, Alyson, and while I realize that, conceptually, there are several contemporary artists that influence how I see, the newer materials available in the marketplace allow me to create surfaces that are “unique” because those materials were not available before. However, I am more in tune with the statement by Elizabeth Murray, particularly as I find myself interacting more and more with the broader art world. What seems “unique” from my perspective is better understood if framed in art historical terms…yes, I know this is somehwhat at odds with a recent post on my blog, but I will have to revisit my position. Always keep an open mind.

  • Mary: I love your take. And I always stress how important it is for artists to feel part of a strong tradition. Art history is filled with amazing stories that we’re so lucky to be connected to. David: I understand where you’re coming from, but we’ll agree to disagree. Although I think it’s only a matter of semantics. The words “unique” and “original” are, in my estimate, overused and do not describe what is unique or original about that art. They’re broad, sweeping claims that usually aren’t substantiated by the artist. Not that that they can’t be, but they just aren’t. I stand by that. I prefer “a fresh perspective on landscapes” or “a new perspective on landscapes” to “unique landscapes.” And then, go on and say what is new about the perspective. As I wrote: “The trick is learning from this and putting a spin on your style to make it your own.” That’s what makes it original. Sue: It’s okay to be unique! Just don’t leave it at that. Tell me WHY and HOW your art is different. Tell me what the spin is that makes it your own.

  • Susan Maldonado

    Ok, I see where each one of you are coming from and I believe you all have the right to your own feelings and opinions. I did feel at first read that “my Original” art work was now a waste of my time since “its been done before.” I must say here that I have been drawing faces and figures since I was young and have never pursued a career in it until recently. Self-doubt, low self-esteem, mixed with critical people, then tied up in a bundle of shyness has kept me from doing what I have always loved. Keeping it to myself and never marketing my abilities. My question to you then is… if I draw a person that I have created in my mind, in my imagination, not using a ‘model’ … is it considered something that has been done for centuries and not original or unique? Just wondering….

  • oh Susan, please don’t beat yourself up thinking about this. Does it matter that people have been drawing and painting figures and faces for years? Why should it? If you are doing what you love that’s enough, don’t you think? We all bring our own personalities and viewpoints to bear on everything we think and do, not just our art work. As artists I think we need to trust in our own hearts, our own voices. It doesn’t matter if we’re unique or different or original but it does matter if we are true to ourselves. If you can look at your work and say, yep, that’s me right there in that piece, then what else do you need??? I think Alyson is just asking us to be very specific about what makes our work our own and to not resort to words that have become almost meaningless in our culture like unique and original. I think she’s asking us to examine our work and our thoughts about our work and describe it in a more meaningful way. Does that work? As for bogging yourself down with worrying about whether or not your work is unique or original it would probably be lots more fun to just keep doing it and growing and learning and maybe look at all the ways people have created figures and faces throughout art history. You would then find your own community of artists to commune with….and how cool would that be?