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.


2 thoughts on “What if I told you that you don’t need to be original?

  1. Within the theoretically minded contemporary art community originality is a joke, as is authenticity. They are not only impossible, but antithetical to the contemporary, progressive sensibility. This is why we have appropriation, and the most popular and richest artists are appropriationists. However, I think it’s bull ploppy. The best artists for me are the ones who had some originality, and made distinct images that simply wouldn’t exist without them. They added to the visual repertoire. One doesn’t have to be original, sure, but, more likely today one is prohibited from it. It’s not considered a worthwhile or even acceptable pursuit according to dominant artistic trends leading back to Duchamp (then Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Wool, Prince…).

    I say originality is always possible, and denying it is self defeating. Except, I suppose, when it makes you fabulously wealthy and famous, and the alternative is fading into ignominy.

    • It is a strange paradox to have originality so highly valued when the commercially successful artists that are promoted as role models are appropriators. Then again, the promotional machine hides their sources and defines them as things that they aren’t.

      There is also a debate about what constitutes originality. In visual art, it tends to be conceived of in regards to the visual language. Is the style unique? Is the process of creation unique? In contrast, in music, artists learn an instrument, read sheet music, sing in a common language and yet produce something original.

      Personally, I don’t strive to be original but looking at my body of work and it is original stuff (despite being influenced from others). Ultimately I have gone that direction due to personal gratification. Nevertheless, I see originality is really not what most people want.

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