Originality is my pet peeve. The same as the unfortunate fact that people like me must be the pet peeve for modern art lovers, of course. I surely am. They come to me raving about some new piece and all they can usually say is: how original it is! And? Why does that matter? Is originality really the be all and end all goal for art, life, everything?
No, it’s not.
Usually I let a question stay around for a while, I ponder over it and attack it from numerous angles, finally I like to leave it open and ready to attract more questions, so that this whole dance around an issue can continue ad infinitum. Not this time, folks. The reason is quite simple and probably does not picture me in the best possible light: I just wish people would stop falling for this madness.
So grab yourself a nice mug of the same coffee as always and join me on a grand crusade against maybe not originality as such, but at the very least the glorious myth that has grown around it.
Originality is not as old as you may think
I might have already blamed it all on modern art (which, by the way, I do appreciate a lot; by no means am I one of the crowd which claims that nothing new can be good or tries to impose value onto things depending on their age – now that is another shade of madness), but originality itself is a tad older than that. Only a tad, though, although talking to some people made me realize that the vast majority of society believes it has been with us since the beginning of time.
Originality as a criterion for art is slowly turning… 300? Something like that. Art history students are probably frowning at me right now, but the truth is, it’s been a while since I did philosophy at school, yet I still rather rely on little scraps of facts that I half remember rather than googling around.
See? The world existed without it for generations! Was there no art before then? Was it all just craft and imitation?
Sure, one could argue that people are capable of creating original things without praising them for or recognizing them for their originality. True? I guess? Definitions in the realm of art are so vague and fluid, one can only guess. Can we create beauty having no understanding of beauty ourselves? Can we create anything having no understanding of what it is?
We cannot strive for it, at the very least. At the very best it can be a by-product of what we’re working on, a little coincidence, a glimmer of lucky hope that something more happens than what our minds were envisioning.
There is sufficient and there is necessary
Is originality necessary for art to exist nowadays, though?
The general trend in the people around me points to yes. We like dealing with absolutes, don’t we? We like things to be definite. We like black and white. We may be claiming the opposite, but at the end of the day if something can be expressed simply and with no doubt, that is the way we are going to choose in almost all cases.
But there are just so many examples I can think of off the top of my head that disagree with this tendency. Sure, one could claim that they are exceptions, but… Should the burden of proof not lie on people who claim the opposite to me? If a person walked towards me on the street and said that we are all controlled by giant cats in mansuits I could possibly believe them, but yet it would be their responsibility to provide the proof, not mine to reject it.
And that in itself is not enough for some people. No. More often than not I hear not only that all art needs to be original to be art, but also that it is sufficient for something to be original to call it art. That anything we see or hear or otherwise experience can claim to be art just on the grounds of being original.
The black and white world, I’m telling you, that’s its fruit in full glory.
What is originality?
How does one determine if something is truly different? Where can we find the border between new and old? Who gets to decide which idea is revolutionary enough?
Theory of literature, depending on the theorist, claims there are only X (3, 5, 7, 12, take your pick) types of stories – and that is it. Does this mean that only their original authors are… well, original? How new does a new twist need to be to claim originality? Can this even be determined with any degree of certainty?
For me, claiming that something has any value because it is original would require a good level of understanding of what original even means. How could I possibly assess something based on a quality I cannot define?
I am sure plenty of people have solved this mystery already; good for them. But in my book originality will most likely always be one of these key words that people keep repeating without giving any meaning to them.
Don’t get me wrong – I am guilty of it too. I am sure I have called things original on this blog already and I am bound to do it again. But at the very least I do not put much value in this originality; I do not consider it an important factor when formulating my opinion on a topic. Calling something original for me is a bit like calling something blue. Or tall. Or furry. It doesn’t carry any weight.
Originality is not the be all, end all
Since the world of art is full of never ending debates that never lead to any conclusions, originality would never become my pet peeve if it had not found its way into my everyday life.
I am not one to judge; I really am not. I’ve been judged enough, I am judged enough and I have enough empathy to understand that it sucks to be judged for other people too. I would never go and try to tell others how to live their lives – even if I did care enough, I would be way too lazy to preach anyway. But there is one thing I can tell you all with absolute certainty:
Being original does not make one more valuable.
Being different does not make one a better person. Neither does not being different. It does exactly what it says on the tin – it makes one different.
I really worries me, you know, this whole obsession with categorizing people depending on how much they stand out from the crowd. It is ok to stand out and it is ok to be with the crowd. We should follow ourselves and our passions and our beliefs because we care about them, not because we want to be original.
There is a saying in Poland, it comes from a rather old movie, maybe even original for its time. It says: Our favourite songs are the ones we already know. And there is something weirdly true to it, no matter how much we’d like to fight it. Something touching on the very basic need for being relatable and being able to relate.
And there is nothing wrong with it.
Similarly some people just don’t feel like they belong. They enjoy lone wolfing around. Their needs and wants are unusual, they don’t fit the norm (as in the statistical norm, that is) and they will never be able to fit in, not the way some people may try to force them to.
And there is nothing wrong with that either.
Because of the severe lack of cars in my life I do take the bus to work every day, and every day I hear people of different ages and backgrounds assessing each other based on how original they are. Calling each other freaks or normies, you know. And although both sides of this conflict feel superior to the other, they are really rather similar– they see the difference and not the person behind it.
In the realm of art it is something I can roll my eyes at and ignore; but it is almost impossible to walk by if it concerns real people and real pain too.
We don’t have to all agree with each other. We don’t have to all love each other. We don’t have to all enjoy each other’s company. But this obsession with originality – or lack thereof – is causing us not to respect each other; and that is the very minimum we should all keep, don’t you think?
It’s time to embrace boring, mundane and regular. To let it be the way it is. In the land where everything stands out, no one can be original anyway.
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