Saturday, 23 January 2010

I Blame It on the Romantics: On the Cult of Originality

In a recent post on James Cameron's Avatar, I wrote that the criticism surrounding this film has very much reminded me of the fact that we live in a culture which (sometimes quite paradoxically) puts too much emphasis on originality, as if that in and of itself would grant a work artistic or narrative quality. I also promised that I would deal with the subject more closely, so here we are.

It is important to note that our concept of originality in art and our conception of the artist (as a form of author-ity) are both fairly new ones that in many ways can be traced back to the literary movement of the Romantics in the early 19th century. Whereas the preceding literary period during most of the 1700s had focused on the art of imitation – where the highest achievement was a form of (sometimes inventive) copying and plagiarism (at times, admittedly, of kinds that today's copyright laws wouldn't have looked kindly upon) – the Romantics introduced notions of artistic originality.

Whereas the 1700s had had a focus upon the art of the Romans (themselves copying the Greeks), the Romantics found the Greeks themselves a great source of inspiration (a concept which itself is very crucial to the Romantic ideal of the artist). Mostly because they understood the Greeks as original in their output. Whether or not the Greeks actually were is, of course, another matter. Can we truly talk about Homer's penning down the great epic poems of an existing oral tradition an act of originality? Or is it in fact the essence of artistic tradition as repetitive and imitating?

Still, Homer serves as a great example, because that oral tradition be damned – his is the name we have put down on those ancient texts and his is the name to which we attribute their greatness.

While the Romantic period ended, and many periods have come and gone since then, we nevertheless seem to be somewhat stuck with their conception of the artist and their concept of originality in art (in the same manner that the style of 19th century Realism can still be said to rule a lot of mainstream fiction). We, like they, sometimes seem to laud originality as a sign of artistic or narrative quality. In short, the Romantics have left us with a Cult of Originality.

But what is originality, really? And what is truly original?

Turning, as so often before, to our trusted friend Merriam-Webster, originality is defined as:
1 : the quality or state of being original
2 : freshness of aspect, design, or style
3 : the power of independent thought or constructive imagination
Original, on the other hand, is defined as:
1 archaic : the source or cause from which something arises; specifically : ORIGINATOR
2 a : that from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made b : a work composed firsthand
3 a : a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity b : a unique or eccentric person
In a way, neither of the two words are very controversial in their meanings, but looking at the usage and application of them in connection to art (whatever the art form) shows the notion of the original or originality to be less than unproblematic.

The prime notion of the words is, of course, that whatever they are applied to should represent something new, something fresh – basically an origin of a kind. Yet the old adage, there is nothing new under the sun, seems to hold true far more often than the Romantics would probably have appreciated. For instance, many of the works we have tended to label original (fresh, inventive, etc) are actually not the starting point of a new trend. Rather, there is often a forgotten text, painting, piece of music or film (or more) somewhere, which for one reason or another didn't make an imprint on the public consciousness. What I am trying to say here is that we have tended not to merit actual originality as much as what we have perceived as original (for whatever reasons).

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that these forgotten pieces are the masterpieces we should have been lauding instead of the "false idols" we have raised. Far from it. The reason they were forgotten (in at least many cases if not all) was probably because that which is first is actually not always the greatest example of a thing. Just consider this: regardless of how well you paint or draw, would you say that the pictures you made as a kid are vastly superior to the ones you could make now? Unless I'm mistaken, you just answered in the negative and the same is true for artistic styles and the like. The first attempts would rarely have been the best examples, and more often than not, their true originality would not really have captured the audience's undying appreciation, which perhaps the more polished third or fourth attempt would have. And that is fine. The question, however, is if we should laud that artistic effort as original? Or if we should rather just label it as good (or even great) art or storytelling, or whatever?

There is nothing wrong with being original. It is by no means a sin. That is not what I am trying to say. What I am trying to say is that it is not the originality that shows us whether a work is qualitative or not. That we see in whether the painting is well done, the music pleasing or the storytelling excellently crafted. Old stories can be good stories. Repetition and imitation can produce great art as well as great entertainment. And as long as we rely on a flawed concept of originality, a concept which seemingly only applies to something "original" to our own perceptions (rather than actually original in a historical "this was the first time ever" sense), it seems haphazard for it to be the deciding factor of quality. Because anything new seems original the first time we encounter it, regardless of whether or not it was the first time it happened or was done. In short, we are tainted (as so often) by our subjective perspectives (or the subjective perspective of a preceding authority).

Thus, do not come dragging the Cult of Originality into an artistic debate to vouch for quality. And if you choose to call something original, you'd better make sure that it was the first of its kind.

No comments:

Post a Comment