Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Important is Originality in Art?

I think many people would suggest that originality is an essential ingredient in art. As an example, an excellent copy of the Mona Lisa, virtually indistinguishable from the original, might be valued at a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars, whereas if the actual Mona Lisa is as close to priceless as is possible for a painting. Two identical works of art; one original and iconic, the other a reproduction, but the first is much more highly-valued than the second by virtue of its originality.

This looks like the Mona Lisa; the actual painting, however, is in the Louvre behind bullet-proof glass.

But there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art. Many artists have created numerous variants of the same, or similar, things — consider Monet's approximately 250 paintings of water lilies (as well as his series of paintings of Poplars, Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Mornings on the Seine, and the London Houses of Parliament), Degas' extraordinary penchant for dancers as a subject (more than half of his vast output of paintings, drawings, and sculptures is devoted to the activities of the ballet dancers and dance students), or Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers — all highly regarded, but, thematically, not particularly original.


Two of the 19 paintings from Monet's "The Houses of Parliament" series. All are the same size, and from the same perspective, but show changes in lighting and hue at different times of day, and in different weather conditions.

If you enjoy visiting art museums, there is a reasonable chance you may have seen Rodin's "The Thinker," his most famous work, and one of the most-recognized (and most-satirized) sculptures ever. The original was 27.5 inches high, but there are over 20 additional casts of the work in various sizes, most of which were executed by his apprentices, as I understand it. Their lack of originality does not prevent them from being prominently displayed (and hence valued) in museums around the world.

"The Thinker," Rodin. At least 20 casts were made of this sculpture.

The paintings in Monet’s Houses of Parliament series are similar – each is of the same subject, viewed from the same vantage point, and on the same size canvas -- and dissimilar – each view represents a different time of day (which alters the lighting), and different atmospheric conditions (hazy, foggy (or smoggy), and different cloud formations). The point, as it relates to originality, is that Monet did not attempt to paint a series of completely different (and therefore highly original) paintings; he wanted to paint the same thing repeatedly in slightly different ways, and we value each individual painting highly nonetheless.

These examples, and many others, suggest that the role of originality in evaluating art may sometimes be relatively minor.

Stravinsky is supposed to have said “good composers borrow, great composers steal,” [ 1 ] which is itself an adaptation (or theft?!) of T. S. Elliott’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” from Elliott's essay on English dramatist Phillip Massinger (1920). It is a clever line, the merits of which are of course debatable, but for me the point is that artists frequently influence one another; part of the way many artists discover their own voices is by emulating, or appropriating, to varying degrees, aspects of the work of others.

Music is filled with elements common to different composers within an historical period, and sometimes across periods. When we study tonal harmony, we learn that in the "common-practice period" (roughly 1700-1900, in Europe), there were guidelines governing the way in which chords progressed. These guidelines have numerous restrictions as well as some freedoms, but the fact that there are guidelines of any sort means that originality in chord progressions was not highly valued.

Composers in the "common-practice" period made widespread use of a limited selection of musical forms, chief among them sonata form, as well as rondo, binary, ternary, and theme and variations. When we study sonata form, we marvel at the many nuanced differences we find in different compositions, even though the big picture form is the same. Other common elements include the use of Alberti bass accompaniment figures (although it had numerous variants), an extremely-limited selection of cadence types (virtually every composition from that period ended with an 'authentic' (V-I) cadence), common phrase lengths (especially 4-bar phrases) and phrase-structures (although numerous exceptions can be found), and writing for commonly-found ensembles such as the string quartet.

And yet, despite the restrictive nature of these common elements, thousands of wonderful works were written. There is originality to be found in all great (or even good!) works to be sure, but, as with Monet’s parliament paintings, the differences are often fairly nuanced.


1 Although there are numerous attributions of this quote to Stravinsky all over the web, I have not come across any that cite a source for it. It seems entirely possible that he said this, but I would like to find out if he actually said or wrote this… If anyone has a citation for this quote, please let me know. Of course, it might also be a sentiment that hacks the world over like to attribute to a famous composer in order to justify theft of intellectual property.

6 comments:

Brooke said...

I think that for art to be original its not necessarily about the subject that is being painted or the chords that are being used. I think if the composer or artist has something individual and unique to express, and they feel free to do so, then no matter what style or subject they choose it will have originality to it and communicate something unique. And I think that's what people look for in art and music. I don't know if people really care if someone is trying to step outside of the box- they just want to see something honest from the artist- something that the artist themself wanted to express and communicate. And no matter what if the artisit does what they like, it will be different than anything someone else would do and therefore original and people will appreciate that. I think a big part of creating is not trying to copy anyone else but just really expressing what you want to in the way you want to and not caring if other pople like it. If you don't worry about other people's reactions I think they are much more likely to find your creation interesting and unique and appreciate it.

Tim Purdy said...

I find the saying interesting about stealing other composers' ideas to be a good thing. In my first composition this year, I came to a section that ran very smoothly into a Dream Theater chord progression from their instrumental tune, "A Mind Beside Itself: 1. - Erotomania." It is a non-standard progression and I tried many other ways to end off this section, however I kept coming back to these four chords (lasting 4 or 5 seconds). In the end I decided to "steal" this material. As I was writing for a classical ensemble, and this was heard in a progressive rock group, I thought it would be different enough (plus I added a new melody and different voicing).

I believe that originality is very important in true art. If someone decided to copy the Mona Lisa then I believe they would be doing so for educational purposes to learn how detailed it is. However, if they decided to paint the mona lisa with a different expression or with different paints, or set with a new background - here the originality comes into play.

I believe that works can be highly original where the artist has a totally new creation and other works that are moderately creative where they use ideas from other artists and incorporate their own.

Both approaches can turn out absolutely beautiful works of art, and I believe the importance of originality all depends on what the artist wishes to portray to it's audience.

Dominic Greene said...

I find the topic of restrictions in musical art forms to be very intriguing. In our Introduction to Composition class this semester, one of our assignments was to write a character piece for piano, using a three-note motive as the basis for the composition. At first, as this was my first time writing music with said restriction, I was very hesitant to even begin writing, as I thought "How can I write an entire piece of music based on just three notes?" I began to think of some of the different ways in which music can be manipulated, such as transposition, augmentation, diminution, textural inversion, etc. Slowly, but surely, a short piece of music emerged from this motive. Upon presenting our compositions in class the following week, I was amazed at variations of this motive, and how each of my classmates treated the motive in different ways. I was astounded by how many different manipulations of that motive I heard. It just goes to show that having restrictions in music can be a very useful tool, as it showed my how music, and short musical ideas can be interpreted by different people.

Luke said...

Jim Jarmusch wrote about originality saying,

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”

By saying that originality is non-existent, I think he was wrong, there had to be a first instance of everything. However, I do like the idea of taking inspiration from the world around you, and the importance of authenticity. Why make music that doesn't make you happy? Additionally, I think writing music is very similar to listening to music, because we must first hear the music inside our heads, then get it down somewhere externally. The more music we listen to, the more art we analyze, the more life experience we experience, the better music we will write, and we will emerge as better, more experienced individuals. This is true for all art forms, and it is simply a matter of creating more and more output.

Robert Godin said...

This is definitely comforting considering I recently handed in a work that stole music directly from someone. Most of the piece is quite different; I simply used it as a starting point. I knew what instruments I wanted and I knew what type of mood I was looking for so I started looking at similar works. Sure enough I found one that really resonated with me and decided I would try to make my own version. Thankfully, in music copyright laws are not as restricting compared to other art forms.

Flutiano said...

It seems to me that there are different types of originality. On one hand you have novelty, the creation of something that is unique, creative, and different than any other existing work (I will call this definition one). On the other hand, you have *the* original, or the version of a work (be it painting, manuscript, etc) which was the first version of the work, created directly by the creator, and not a copy of the original (I will call this definition two).

The first example given in this blog post is an example of definition two. The original painting and the exact copy are the same image; the original nature which art enthusiasts are prizing the first created version, with paints and by hand, is the originality that means it comes as directly from the creator as is possible.

In terms of definition two, each one of Monet's water lily paintings is original. It is the first version of that particular painting, and it was created by Monet's hand holding the paintbrush. However, the originality being questioned in the statement "there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art" is definition one creativity. It seems a bit unfair to compare their value across these different definitions of originality. Even the Mona Lisa doesn't seem exorbitantly original, according to definition one, if you call it a portrait of a woman. Surely there are thousands of portraits of women. It it's own way, even the subject matter of approximately 250 paintings of water lilies is original, because who else would have thought to do that many different paintings of water lilies?

Also with Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker," the originality from definition one is intact in all of the copies. These are valued in a similar way to the prints of the Mona Lisa. Hundreds or thousands of dollars for a painting is still a lot - even if it doesn't compare to the price of the definition two original.