What if I told you that you don’t need to be original?


“It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation”.

So said American writer Herman Melville.

While his view is certainly popular, it is by no means universal. Artist Shepard Fairey, best known for making iconic images out of Obama and Andre the Giant from other people’s photos, said,

“If being original means having to throw paint in front of a jet turbine to hit a canvas 50 ft away then let’s not be original.”

Intertextuality - Using pre-existing imagery can create  work that resonates more widely that original material

Intertextuality – Using pre-existing imagery can create work that resonates more widely that original material

In ideology, being original is highly championed but I can name a number of psychological studies that show we are actually programmed to seek conformity. This is in turn reflected in commonalities of thought, style, ideas, techniques that are we typically refer to as “culture”. Let’s look at memes. Why is it that a known image attracts more attention than a new one? Let’s look at art. Why is it that the most known artists were exponents of a style used by many rather than sitting in a genre all of their own?

I should clarify that I am not devaluing originality. Creating something original (and good) is more challenging than mimicking, but I am questioning whether artists or audiences really want it. Ironically, I think that is an original question to ask.

Can art change the world?

JR - Phnom Penh

JR – Phnom Penh

It’s nice to think that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is even nicer to think that since a picture says a thousand words, a paint brush should be worth a thousand pens.

But can we change the world with our art to show our paint brushes are mightier than all the armies of the world?

On a basic level, I tend to think the world would be a more thinking, connected, appreciative and inquisitive place if there were more art within it. Van Gogh said it well when he said,

“A good picture is equivalent to a good deed.”

I should clarify that one of the key points in his quote was “good picture.” I would define a bad picture as one that unsuccessfully tries to visualise a stated viewpoint. In such cases, the picture is not worth a thousand words; it’s worth nothing more than a full stop. No more to see here.

A quote by street artist JR articulated well what I am on about here:

“In some way art can change the world. Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things. But to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create energy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and the enables you to change the world. What we see changes who we are.”

I like JR’s take because it doesn’t elevate the artist as a beacon of enlightenment that has a gospel to impart. Instead, the artist is someone is someone who is themselves open to be changed, either through their art or their discussions with others. If the artist is not open to change, then I doubt the audience will either.

Is it wrong to borrow someone’s ideas?

Wang Qizi Mao

We all have to be original right? Not so said Picasso, who declared in his famous line, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

The quote is general interpreted to mean that a good artist is influenced by others but when an artist becomes great, their style is so closely associated with them that the ideas of others are essentially “stolen”. Picasso was a great example of such an artist because he spent his life copying others but history has recorded him as one of the most original artists in history. Even his famous quote was copy, believed to have come from composer Igor Stravinsky, who said,

 “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”

In turn, Stravinsky’s quote is believed to have been derived from poet T.S Elliot who proposed,

 “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.”

Ok, so the original interpretation of the Picasso quote seems to be different from Elliot’s so if there was a bit of borrowing of quotes, a form of Chinese whispers seems to have resulted in meaning being changed or at the very least, interpretations being changed according to the context the idea has been heard in. And so it is with art.

Let’s have a look at Andy Warhol’s Mao. It is stolen in the sense that it has become so famous that curators the world over don’t even know who painted the original that Warhol. I’ve seen major art museums just say it came from a cover of a book that Warhol found.

The original was actually painted by someone and his name was Wang Qizhi. So should Wang Qizhi feel like he has been cheated out of millions or acknowledgement of his creative genius? Well, it’s a bit nuanced because Wang Qizhi painted his Mao’s under the direction of a panel of communist party members who made suggestions about certain feelings an images they wanted. I don’t know what that panel of party members wanted, but I would suggest it would be something different to what art patrons at a Warhol exhibition are talking about. In that regards, Warhol’s theft created a whole new feeling which was unique and utterly different from the book cover that he tore Mao from.

But how would Warhol feel if others did to him what he did to Wang Qizhi (not to mention soup can designers). Well, lets consider his quote:

“I don’t get mad when people take my things…It got a little crazy when people were turning out paintings and signing my name…Signing my name to it was wrong but other than that I don’t care.”

Andy Warhol Mao

Andy Warhol Mao

Which artist would you want to be? #artquestion

warholmaoOne of Andy Warhol’s Maos

So if you could be any artist from history, who would you want t be? For this question, you can’t be yourself as that makes things boring. So here is a quick run down of the artists I considered while considering the question.

Vincent Van Gogh – Cold, lonely and hungry most of the time but the sense of satisfaction involved in making that work, wow!

Leonardo Da Vinci – Celebrated but he only made a few paintings and rarely finished other work because working within restraints of a commission is tedious. Overall, an unrewarding career if it were me.

Marcel Duchamp – Hugely influential and a fun approach to art but preoccupation with playing chess suggests a certain boredom with art making. Not me.

Takeshi Murakami – Search for inspiration would give me a good excuse to read more manga and money gives freedom for jet setting. I like it.

Warhol – Great parties and lots of money but making pictures of soup cans over and over again….boring!

Brett Whiteley – Great art but too dependent upon drugs for their creation. I like my mind.

Salvador Dali – Great satisfaction in making art but being a sociopath would be a high price to pay

Lucinda Freud – Satisfying to create work of that quality,

Do you think we should we follow rules of composition?

Hopper - Nighthawks

Hopper – Nighthawks 

Watching some Chinese movies, I am often struck by how actors are often plonked right in the middle of the screen. I then find myself thinking, these Chinese directors never encountered John Thomas Smith who invented the rule of thirds back in 1797.

For those who don’t know the background story, Smith proposed that rectangular viewpoints should be broken up into intersecting thirds. Important elements of the scene should be placed where the thirds intersected.

Smith’s ideas weren’t based on any scientific research, rather, he just sort of felt that his theory was on the money. Nevertheless, they proved influential and became one of the compositional rules that not only shaped western painters, but also western photographers and western directors.

Of course, not all creatives were believers. American photographer Edward Weston proposed,

“To consult rules of composition before making a picture is like consulting the law of gravitation before taking a walk.”

Personally, I have to be honest and say I agree with Weston. It’s seems a bit irrational to intentionally follow a rule that is originated in a feeling even when your own feelings are telling you to go a different way. Sometimes our feelings are shaped by the feelings of others so when everyone else is going on about a rule of thirds, it may be easy to get caught up in the contagion.  At other times; however, you have something different going on, such as wanting your eye to dance around the canvas without hierarchies of importance. Rule of thirds are just going to be a nuisance in such cases.

How would you define the differences between design and art?


Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) 

Human psychology operates according to categories defined by labels. Once a different label is applied, should it not follow that there is a difference in substance?

Which brings us to the labels of art and design. Obviously there is some overlap but are there any differences in substance that warrants things being allocated to each category?

The general convention is that if something can’t be used, then it is art. If it can be used, then it is design. Then we have the likes of Marcel Duchamp who stuck a functional item like a urinal in an art exhibition to blur the lines once more. Admittedly, you can’t really use a urinal in a gallery once the plumbing is disconnected lest security soon escort you out the door. In that regards, the urinal removed from the function it was created for becomes a work of art. Patrons can then admire the artistic talents that governed its designer. Confused? Good. Duchamp would be happy.

Anyway, some people who have embraced the labels of designer or artist have tried to define the difference, usually in ways that add to the prestige of their own label. For example, designer Henrik Fisker proposed,

“If design isn’t profitable, then its art.”

This obviously begged the question of whether something stayed art if it were profitable.

Artist David Hockney had a view more complimentary to his profession when he proposed,

“Art has to move you and design does not, unless it is a good design for a bus.”

So there we have it. Art is useless, unprofitable but it moves you. Meanwhile, design is functional, profitable but easily forgotten as kind of  background visuals. Agree?

To write the artist statement or to not?


A picture says a thousand words but can a thousand words explain a picture?

It is a question I have long asked myself as I have tried to translate a product of my right visual brain seething with curiosity and emotion into the logical left brain that produces the language of defined communicative answers. Sometimes I am the one seeking answers in what I have created but often it is others who see some collection of images, colours, shapes etc and go, “Why?!”

Being both a visual and linguistic artist I see benefits in having some kind of relationship between the defined world of language and the prisms of the visual realm. In this spirit, today’s post is consideration of pros and cons in artist statements.

NO! Don’t write them

  1. Don’t remove the mystery

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (above) is one of the most recognisable art pieces in the world but arguably it gained its status on the basis of the emotions the visuals evoked rather than the literal explanation for why the image was created. (The drawing is a visual response to the ideal of human proportions with geometry as described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius). I am inclined to think that if more people knew why Vitruvian Man was actually drawn then there would be less overall appreciation for it. The ambiguity of the visuals and the associations of square and circle with the mandala has given it a universal quality. On the other hand, the explanation is more of a niche concept. In this case, I say ignorance is indeed bliss!

YES! Write them. 

  1. Provide a context for interpretation

A lot of western art educational institutions have devalued skills in favour of artists developing their own language. In addition, they have devalued working from pre-existing concepts in favour of developing new concepts. The consequence is abstract concepts communicated in visually abstract ways. Without an artist statement, audiences struggle to understand what is going on.

I have to confess that while I say this is a reason for writing an artist statement, I say that with an understanding that I think western art education has become too biased towards egocentric artist at the expense of the audience. In other words, I believe artist statements are needed more than they should be.

In contrast, the art of Beijing’s 798 district provided me my most rewarding art experience (from a patron perspective). The art was also virtually devoid of meaningful artist statements.  One reason is that the art was very political and a defined political message would risk the exhibition being shut down. The second was that the art really spoke for itself as it explored themes of change, individualism versus community, Marxism, social order, militarism and free speech using highly skilled and pre-established visual languages. Because these were big questions of society, it was accessible to audiences. I really was a pig in mud.

I sometimes see the titling of a painting as the happy compromise that provides the context for interpretation while still providing scope for individual interpretation. I also see a broad artist statement for the exhibition as having educational value to help fill some of the information gap that makes art more rewarding to interpret.

Use as a sales technique

I once had an art teacher that had had a very successful academic career that included first class honours and a prestigious scholarship to complete a year’s residency in the USA. She was also one of the worst artists I had ever seen. She made abstract geometric paintings that revealed someone who lacked that innate eye for balance, form, composition and colour harmony. Furthermore, based on the visuals alone, there was no exploration of what might be termed society’s big questions. Her one talent was her gift with words. When I read her artist statements, I found myself wanting to see her art and feeling like it was going to take me on a journey of discovery and enlightenment.

I am convinced that it was her way with words that was also a secret to her successful academic career. With her way with words, she could front her examining panels and explain her work using all the buzz words like juxtaposition, exploration, imbue, and evoke. Distinction!!!

Again, I am lamenting a problem with art education here as I tell a story of what artist statements can do. Nevertheless, I do recognise that a bias towards words is the reality of how things work and if words can get the artist to the top of the mountain while the visuals alone would have them languishing at base camp, then by all means use the words.