04 June 2018
Dr Great Art Podcast episode 37: Originality in Art
The new Dr Great Art podcast. Episode 37: Originality in Art, Tradition vs. Innovation
Does originality in art even exist? A Matt Ballou listener request. "Make it new!" has certainly become old. Yet, the Postmodernist demand that a lack of originality be heralded as something new is duplicitous. A discussion of originality in art.
#arthistory #originality #drgreatart #markstaffbrandl
Dr Great Art Podcast 37
Originality in Art
Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 37th "Dr Great Art" brief podcast.
My artecdote this time is a complex one. It is about originality in art. It arises from a request from listener Matt Ballou. Matt is a very good painter as well as a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the University of Missouri. First let me say, I appreciate his request very much! Please feel free to do so yourself about other topics.
Matt Ballou to me on Facebook:
"Mark, I’m still loving Dr. Great Art! Topic suggestion: the myth of originality. You’ve used the term in a basic way before, but I’m sure you have more nuanced things to say. Personally, I find the very idea of originality odious and mistaken; we may impart a unique inflection to received knowledge, remixing and repurposing ideas/associations/structures, but any claim of complete newness or originality is meaningless for a lot of reasons. I’d love to hear you explore some of these ideas."
Thanks Matt. A great question, and indeed and old and important one. Tradition vs. innovation. First, yes I believe in originality. But it IS much more complex than usually imagined. I suspect you are objecting to the standard way the idea is bandied about, in a Romanticist, misty, silly fashion.
The common question is "Should artists bow to tradition, or should they break all the rules?" it is not as binary and simple as that! Other important questions immediately arise: Do they mix these? What is up with all that? Are there degrees of originality? And many more questions. Each of which could make a fun podcast.
The basic question is murkier now than ever before. One problem is that much contemporary art isn't original. Even copying has been done before, as Jonathan Jones has wittily written. Modernism worshipped originality, and often succeeded in reaching it. Yet it led to an impasse in many ways.
As I said in my podcast on art mottos, episode number 2, "Make It New" became a model of change, of renaissance and renewal. It brought us revolutionary techniques, composition and thought. No demonstrations of boring old academic ideas in stolen Raphael clothing, no endless kings, history, mythological or religious pantomimes. Indeed, they really meant "Make it original! Make it now!"
And YET! "Make it new!" became old. Even new was no longer new. The endless striving for newness in many artists became mere production of novelties in the worst sense.
Rather than making "Make it New" new again, many Postmodernists decided to use the fact of lack of originality as an element of meaning. Cynically, unfortunately, many hypocritically demand that their lack of originality be heralded as something great and new. It becomes all about the marketing of the illusion of newness.
Nevertheless, historically and contemporarily, there have been works of great originality and works lacking all originality. The second usually have more success in the moment. The first, more success over time. The artworld at the moment does not truly reward for originality. Or worse for quality. People in it CLAIM to do so, but in general they do not. Artists are rewarded for doing the opposite, for being highly consensus-correct with just a tiny, tiny dash of ever-so-microscopic difference. After all, "Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers," as Mignon McLaughlin wrote.
To get back to Matt's thought, originality is far more than mere newness. The worship of newness in and of itself is what I think he is rebelling against. Originality is culturally contingent and personal. Thus, contrarily, always in a dialogue and with knowledge of tradition --- and I mean that in the widest form: history, techniques, metaphors and more.
David Hare has astutely observed that originality often "either passes unnoticed or is considered to be a mistake. In the arts it is noticed and approved, precisely at that moment when it is on its way to becoming unoriginal."
We must be careful not to impoverish art though by limiting it to current consensus-correct ideas of academistically-understood novelty. For example, Adorno (in contrast to Ortega) rather snootily asserts that whatever appeals to more popular experience, or anything not based on just his own specific context and definition of "being erudite" is relegated to a sub-artistic realm and pejoratively labeled kitsch or entertainment. He's wrong. Knowledge, especially of history and current approaches is important. Tradition. The problem is the exclusionary presumption that tradition mixed with novelty in his odd-ball way exhausts the realm of legitimate art.
The concept of originality became an ideal in Western culture from the 18th century till roughly the beginning of Postmodernism, circa 1979. In contrast, before that, it was common to appreciate the similarity with admired classical works, such as Michelangelo's Sleeping Cupid I discussed in podcast number 33. Shakespeare suggested avoiding "unnecessary invention."
HOWEVER, there are works, entire works or elements of them, that strike us for centuries as being of unique style and substance, springing creatively from what has come before or was around them in their time, yet taking it markedly farther in a surprising direction. As an example, this can be found in Rembrandt, "whose late works took [him] into realms even more daring than those [he] had penetrated earlier in [his] career," as Richard Cork has written.
This was, though, almost never the goal of the artists, if you trust their own writings and comments. It was usually a wonderful by-product of artists becoming ever-more-deeply themselves through the practice of creating art. Originality is one of those things like QUALITY, the word so many are afraid of, which are hard, if not impossible, to nail down, and yet with a developed, experienced eye, one sees their presence.
This is also how much law works. Indeed, In the Copyright Law of the United States, the work that is sought to be protected must satisfy a threshold for originality. This is then judged through argument by a group of experts. No hard and fast rules, but obvious presence. Right now, I assert, it is innovative to use tradition! As odd as that sounds.
Brian Sherwin perceptively declares that in his opinion, "the reality of art in general is that it is a process of building from one generation to the next. …Every work of art is a continuation of our collective story -- and as any avid reader knows... some stories are better than others."
And YET, there are stories and works that are surprising. That feel unique AND "of the tradition." We feel their subtle, personal, "dues-been-paid" individuality. Their "unique inflection" is important. This often comes of the indirect process of finding new tropes, startlingly unexpected metaphors and metaphor(m)s.
"If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to. Much of cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones." As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written.
So, Matt, yes, I think originality exists and is wonderful. But it is not a Romanticist-envisioned lightning-bolt from heaven, so I appreciate your mistrust. It is rather an important uniqueness that derives, certainly not by design, from a dialogue with, toward and against tradition, both cultural and personal. It is smaller than the Romantics thought, but far important that Postmodernists think.
"Make it your OWN, make it matter." Make it personal, but with the call-and-response acknowledgement of those before, and a vison of those after, you --- as in jazz. And that will be dialectical dialogue with tradition and with innovation. This is the agonistic, quintessentially antithetical stance of much art, that I discussed last podcast episode. I hope this circuitous (sir-que-it-tus) discussion comes close to what you wanted Matt! Thanks for the GREAT suggestion!
Thanks for listening. Podcast number 37.
Originality in Art
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If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also, I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.
I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my room-filling painting-installations with accompanying paintings.
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