Is there such a thing as originality?

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. -Jim Jarmusch

Read the entire quote.

Discuss.

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For the best response, I’m giving away a CD and e-book How to Curate & Install Your Exhibit Like a Pro, which I stopped selling last year (though the info is still good).

Rules: I choose the winner. Nothing democratic about it. I’ll pick the comment I like best by Sunday, January 30.

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40 comments to Is there such a thing as originality?
  • King Solomon, of Ecclesiastes, about 971 BC, was one of the richest and wisest men of all time. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

    I agree: originality is nonexistent.

    Well said.

    Donna

  • For me, originality is creating something that did not previously exist, in a manner that is uniquely individual. In art, that can be good, bad or indifferent, but the creative energy leads to originality and uniqueness and that is what I value.

  • In the past I’ve worried about making certain pieces in clay thinking others may think I am copying them, but I’m feeling much more free now and branching out, thanks for posting this I agree, it’s what you do with it that counts, there has been so much art there are bound to be two people on opposite ends of the world working on exatly the same idea at the same time.

  • What is “originality?” If this word means something that not only never existed until now and has no antecedent nor any basis in concept but serendipitous and extemporaneous existence, then I agree – up to the point that while it isn’t likely, there does exist at least an infinitesimal possibility of spontaneous originality. Kind of like a mutation, perhaps?

    If, on the other hand, “originality” means this is a new creation however much built upon earlier thought/work/concept/discussion/etc, then I can’t agree. The full article didn’t really differentiate enough for me. To take something (concept, work, understanding) to a new direction is sufficient, in my opinion, to count as an original thought or work. After all, no one before had (apparently) looked at quite the same way before.

    On the third hand, two people (or more) may have the same idea (for example, the wheel) without ever having met. Is this not originality? (No matter if both got the idea from observing a rolling stone or if the inspiration came from vastly different visions).

    Finally, then, I offer for further reading “When Languages Die” by K. David Harrison. The book touches on this topic indirectly but it’s visible with thought.

  • “True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.”

    – Edith Wharton

  • susannpc

    Sounds like Jim has found an excuse for stealing. Sorry – it doesn’t fly with me. I do agree with Jim about studying all that life offers. But surprisingly many students of art rarely visit a museum, forest or tide pool for inspiration. More commonly they do a search and view images on a phone or commuter for ideas.
    Originality is alive and well, don’t be fooled into thinking you have seen it all, don’t limit yourself – don’t make excuses, make art.

  • Hi Alyson,

    Interesting concept. I’ve had many discussions on this lately, generated by the vast fluidity of the internet. It is quite possible for artists to emulate one another, to discover that someone else is thinking of the same thing at the same time. Still I do think that original work is possible, and that each artist puts a visionary stamp on whatever they do that is unique. I’m not talking about copying. Of course there are people who copy another artist to the last brushstroke. I’ve had students create work that was clearly influenced by mine — my colour choices, and method — but even so their work was distinctly theirs.

    The important thing is to strive to be original. In my case I’m painting people. Thousands of other artists have done so since the dawn of time, and I am inspired by every other excellent artist who has ever
    done this kind of work. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think I do work that is
    slightly different — even when I am trying to learn from what they do.

    But I agree with the quote that we should get inspired by everything we see, movies, novels, other artists. Art movements have always grown this way. I don’t think of it as stealing. But the writer’s advice makes for a very punchy quote.

    You do get us thinking!
    Barbara

  • Killroy was here!Interesting how unoriginal the quote is (substitue “be inspired” for the new speak “steal”). Whether it’s variations on a theme or virgin territory, originality can only apply on a personal level. Everything else is hair splitting and should be left for the copyright courts (date your work).

  • Being an identical twin makes me see beyond this statement. It’s entirely possible to have items seem the same whilst still being original. To sum the lack of originality up in such a statement makes one question whether he sees the glass as half full or half empty. While I would never criticize him for his opinion, I wonder why he has come to this forgone conclusion. Everyone and everything no matter what is still an original and we all create originally, even those who manipulate creative works from others. One only has to look at “Dolly the sheep” to see that. It really is a self-limiting quote, because why would one bother to create if nothing was original.

    Originally speaking,

    Elle

  • I believe that as long as we look at something through our own minds, and not how others would like to tell us to, then originality isn’t in danger.

  • Originality exists. I think it is our delivery of the already existing concepts that in fact changes which is where originality is born. Because we create from a place founded on our experiences and expressions. Though these experiences and expressions are of the already existing world around us, we each interpret and communicate differently. And the manner in which we deliver it, can only exists within each unique person. Where the delivery is not founded upon our own, experiences, interpretation then originality does not exists.

  • There may not be original ideas in a broad and generalized context but I believe each person has the ability to add their own touch to an existing idea. Each person in the world has their own individual experiences and outside influences that make them original in their own right, therefore each person can add their own touch, their influences and experiences to something that already exists. Whether it be an idea, a painting, sculpture, literature, a play or whatever it may be, we all have the creative ability to add a bit of ourselves, a bit of our experiences and a bit of our influences to anything we wish and make it original in our context. So if you think about of the above and how something can be thought of, created or expressed then it’s almost inconceivable that something can not be original based on the fact that each person lives a unique and separate life with different experiences that they bring to the table. They made be repeating something similar but it will never be exactly the same.

  • AnnaMaria Windisch

    Read the whole piece and I concur with his opinion. You know when it is not an original when you’ve seen it before no matter how transposed, exploited, badly copied.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alyson B. Stanfield, Paul Nielsen and vturnerart, FASO Artist Websites. FASO Artist Websites said: What is originality? Does it exist? @abstanfield wants to know your opinion (plus giveaway fro best comment!) http://bit.ly/hRKNmr [...]

  • Gwenn

    Originality is not in what you do but in how you do it.

    Our copyright law even makes that point, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing that law gets even remotely right!

  • Each piece of art I create is built up from my skills, from the lessons I have learned, from the books that I have read, from my explorations that take things a bit further in a different direction; by some images I may have seen or a piece of art I have responded to; by an email exchange that tests an idea or explains another way of doing something; by adapting or using a favourite tool in a new way; from a fleeting moment of inspired creativity; from a conversation with family and friends; or…… the list can go on.

    In many ways our personal art is the expression of so many inputs. That is not to say that we are not producing original works – for we are – but to suggest that we have done it all on our own with nothing learned from anybody else or inspired by anything else seems to me to be a bit on the arrogant side.

    On the other hand, never do I think its a good idea to directly lift an idea from somebody else’s work and think “I’ll do that”. And I am never sure if I have a rule in my head when judging art about how many steps away from somebody else’s work or inspiration makes for a comfortable sense of originality in the work. I expect I will ponder these issues for a long time yet!

  • What is Original, anyway?

    I could be like Jeff Koons;
    and blow up big balloons
    But I tried derivative irony first
    (See: ashtray / Damien Hirst)
    How original was Manet?-
    (who painted the classics his own bad way)
    Or enigmatic Leonardo
    Shrouded in smiles and sfumato?
    According to Robert Henri
    It’s enough just to paint what you see.
    NOW I want to break out bold
    And be remembered when I am old.
    Jarmusch says ‘beg borrow steal’
    But how much of that feels real?
    It hurt me to discover that Gauguin
    Copied images found in a tourist plan
    And I know when I see a Francis Bacon,
    My heart will not stop achin’
    And right now Marlene Dumas
    Strikes a chord resonant en masse.
    So for me it is contextual
    Somewhat vague, somewhat sexual
    The original is in me I know
    And I think I touch it, the deeper I go
    Or at least I hope it is in me to find
    A new perspective, a unique state of mind.
    (Elaine Kehew- 2011)

    • One of the first questions to bubble up within me early in my art training was this very question about originality. My teacher straightened right up, crossed his arms, and said with powerful, quiet confidence, ” there is nothing new, just the history we don’t know”. Fifteen years later, I agree only in part with that. But, that thought had a big impact on me as a person. I liked the poem.

  • I put this on Kiesler’s site, by mistake…William Ralph Inge said, “Originality is undetected plagiarism.” I love that.

  • The more I travel, the more I know; whatever I paint, it already exists somewhere in the world.

  • Kim

    If inspiration (something already existing) is the impulse to creativity, then what comes from the creative process is, hopefully, authentic – a new spin on the original idea, or a combination of original ideas which results in something brand new. This new thing could be both authentic and original.

  • There is no originality in a human creating things that stimulate the senses. Zeus, God, The Big Bang has already done this.

    Originality is in how it’s done. As my old painting professor, Patrick McCay, told us, “It’s not what you paint, it’s what you do with it”

  • Art is the expression of a concept, idea, feeling or emotion via one or more physical mediums, with the intent to communicate that concept to others.
    Since any artistic expression is a response to an individuals life experiences, including every other artist they have been exposed to, there’s going to be some overlap in ‘originality’ but plenty of room for individual ‘authentic’ expression.

  • As I struggle to find my own voice, I find myself concerned that what I am creating isn’t original or that looks too much like some one’s work. I take courses which are technique rather than a make this oriented. I find it a challenge use those techniques in a way that looks original. I have decided that this year I will spend very little time looking at other people’s art and work to be more observant of the world around me and see where that takes me. My goal is to have coherent work of art that is me by the end of 2011.

    • Janice: I do think you can be inspired by others’ art, but there is a time to go inside yourself. Just don’t cut yourself off. I find that those who cut themselves off are the ones thinking that they’re the only ones with original ideas — mostly because they don’t know about what’s already out there.

  • I would have preferred if the author had encouraged us to “learn from” rather than “steal from”. Not only does the word “stealing” have a bad connotation, I have seen work that was clearly stolen – with no attempt to conceal the thievery and make it authentic. That is plain wrong. So, I think, it comes down to honest and dishonest thievery and what is key to remember when “stealing” is: “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

  • The idea that the existence of stealing/appropriation/inspiration negates the existence of originality is absolutely absurd.

    Just because the 26 letters of the alphabet have been used before does not mean that NOTHING I say or write from here on out is original!

    Yes, there is such a thing as originality: new, fresh or novel; individual, independent or creative – or anything “perceived” as such.

    Authenticity IS invaluable and it supports originality’s existence

  • Dan

    If anything is original, it was created by the God who created us. He created us in His image, so we are to create also, and He has given us the tools, media, and inspiration to work with. That makes us His tools in creation. Once we see that we are free to work without fear of what we do having already been done.

  • The ART of Making Love….or is it the Love of Making Art?
    Creating a pure expression of your soul that hopefully someone else can connect with is why there are so many art addicts in my opinion.
    We CREATE because we HAVE to. By definition creating means making something NEW- thus original. Even when people try to copy there are those who can instantly tell the difference.

    Is a Post It note only a piece of paper and mistaken glue project not original? Both items existed before but together they created something new and exciting….sort of like people, huh? Right?

    Two people come together and CREATE something new out of love and passion.
    Is your sweet little bundle of joy just a different version of the neighbor’s or is each little lump of laughter absolutely uniquely inspiring?

    A fan of Charles H. Duell, I am not. This Patent Office official in 1899 has been awarded the glory of “originating” the quote, “everything that can be invented has been invented”, (which actually was taken out of context) but most people don’t know that do they? OR do they?

    Chris Columbus and I will continue to believe what we know in our souls because you can’t always believe what’s written in the paper.

    Inspiration is a gift that allows us to create. Those inspirations are called life.
    Enjoy!

  • [...] You can read the full posts on ArtBizBlog  along with other’s responses here. [...]

  • Excellent discussions, everyone!

    Each of you makes valid points, but I have to give the prize to one person and that person is . . .

    Elaine Kehew

    How could I not award her the prize when she responded to a question about originality in verse?

    Congratulations, Elaine!

  • ooh what an interesting discussion! I love all the thoughtful comments! Here’s my two cents: Every thing has been done and said before! I don’t remember who said this but the gist of it is ” lesser artist imitate, greater artists steal! I am an art historian , apart from being an artist and if you look through the ages, greatest artists who ever lived had borrowed and interpretative other artists. Manet Olympia is an interpretation of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”; “Luncheon on the Grass” is a an interpretation of Gorgione’s painting and so on and forth. But can anyone say Olympia is not authentic? It might not be original per se, but Manet took what he wanted and made the painting his! Authentically, I mean! I have always tried my best to make art that’s “original” but I am sure there is someone , somewhere making something like what I do and thinking how original he/she is! In other words, we might not be as original as we might wish to be, but as long as we are honest in our creation and our motive for making art is pure,I think most art is authentic!

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  • James B

    I sometimes worry that originality is not dead but hard to perceive truthfully once it’s discovered. I see and read a lot of variations on themes and wonder if something original can still be generated by using pieces from other concepts. The hardest part is how does one confirm it is something original once it comes to light.

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