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Originality in art – is it fact or fallacy?

'There is no new thing under the sun.'

Just a minute ago, I checked to be sure I got that famous quote right... I keep a copy of the books of the most popular religions in my library, so I checked that oft-quoted saying and found it in the last part of verse 9, chapter one of the book of Ecclesiastes. The Bible describes Ecclesiastes as a Preacher and a son of David, who was the second Jewish king.

By this reckoning, Ecclesiastes had a vast history of human works to draw on, in the order of three thousand years of Art-making. So, it would be understandable if he could find no new thing in the world of his time. All things had already been thought and said and done and made. Perhaps this piece of writing, this story, told and retold down the centuries is the source of our modern obsession with novelty.

It begs the question: by what standard is the originality of any work judged?

  • The definition of an original work - whether it be in any of the Arts or any of the Sciences - is that this piece stands alone, as unique, the one and only in its field. It is the theory never before conceived, the artwork never before expressed in any form or material. It has no precedent or imitation. It is new.

Evolution programs us to be attracted to new things.

  • Anything new - any change in our environment – presents a possible opportunity. The one who grasps that opportunity may earn immense profit on a personal level or even become a hero to the society at large.  

Here, I'm thinking of a monkey group in Northern Japan which was the focus of a famous study some years back. When a hard winter left the animals facing starvation, the scientists supplied food supplements, strewn along a beach the monkeys inhabited.

Wet sand clung to the potato-like vegetables, making them unpleasant to chew. One genius monkey took her share into the waves and washed it. Free of sand, the food even tasted better with its seasoning of salt from the sea. Others of her group copied the monkey's new custom.

We humans call this effect 'Culture.'  

Along with our fascination with the new, we've become hypnotised by a myth that insists: 'Originality is the mark of genius.' When we think of those two words in the field of Painting, one name dominates.

  • Picasso.

What image jumped into your mind as you read that name? I'd guess it was one of the famous works he made in the style we know as Cubism. Perhaps you envisioned one of his images of a woman's face with features weirdly out of place, as if seen in profile and front-on at the same time.

For me, the first magazine reproductions of Cubist paintings was a shock. The brilliance of this new way of looking was at once clear to my 14-year-old eye. I didn't like the pictures but I recognised their validity as a way of telling us about painting objects, even a person, as objects. My mother's face could be placed on the paper in just the same way as a piece of fruit or a toybox. Every physical item could be broken down into the simple shapes we learned about in Geometry class.

It was a revelation. The sheer genius of it, the originality of it, made me wonder: what makes me think I can be an artist? I'd never come up with breath-taking ideas like these. Why go on painting?

The world must have been filled with young people thinking these same thoughts. Even now, untold numbers of people who would love to try their hand at painting hang back because they know they are not geniuses. They know they do not have Originality. They know this because art history tells them so. They live with regret.

  • I think their regret is based on a fallacy. Not only the facts about how Cubism was derived from earlier movements in Paris before the first World War and how heavily Picasso and Braque were influenced by images from African tribal art. I think the mistake goes far deeper and here's why:

Each time someone makes another painting of a famous structure, for eample, the Sydney Opera House or the Eiffel Tower, that painting shows something new. The newness is in the emotional element the human artist adds to the paint he uses.
 ©Dorothy Gauvin

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