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The Origins of Original Art: The stepping stone of originality in art

by Brian Sherwin on 7/24/2011 5:59:39 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Just how original can a work of art be? When you consider the influences that bombard us on a daily basis it is clear that originality in art, as I've mentioned in the past, is a specter -- a ghost. In my opinion-- and the rule of art related law aside-- the reality of art in general is that it is a process of building from one generation to the next. In fact, I'd go as far as to suggest that a work of art can only be original if the artist has been hidden away from all visual experiences. Point blank -- originality in art -- as in all things-- does not exist.


Raise your hand if you have never heard of Picasso. Raise your hand if you have never viewed a work of art aside from the art you create. Raise your hand if as a child a teacher or parent never taught you to draw something -- or if you never decided to draw after observing other children doing it. All hands are down. Thus, from a philosophical standpoint one must agree that art-- in general-- can never truly be original. We are all influenced by the images of others -- and the very process of creation-- in some way regardless if we admit it or not. We all learn from our collective visual tradition in some way.


Painters -- how did you know to pick up a paintbrush? Sculptors -- how did you know that a lump of clay can be turned into something beyond natures intention? Photographers -- how did you know that a camera can be used for more than just taking family photos? We know from living -- and from experiencing those who came before directly or indirectly. We are bombarded with art everyday -- especially in this age of the Internet. In that sense, even the medium we choose to use to express ourselves artistically is not an original direction -- it is not an original idea. Nothing is original -- we all build from the past. We are all part of a living visual history.


Originality is defined in several ways. It can be "the quality or state of being original", the "freshness of aspect, design, or style" or the "power of independent thought or constructive imagination". An original work of art is often defined as "a work of art that has not received from others nor one copied based on the work of others.". Read that definition again -- then ask yourself if it is possible for someone today to have not 'received' some form of influence from viewing art -- or to have not 'copied' the style of past works consciously or unconsciously. Again, in that sense originality does not exist. We all build from what we have seen.


The first known use of the word 'originality' occurred in 1742 according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In fact, prior to that time artists and other creatives prided themselves on having a connection to past works -- they embraced the similarities from one generation to the next. An artist was only as good as his or her adaptation of past ideas and manner of creation. Yet today we see many artists who deny all connections -- they want to be the first. They want to think of themselves as an original artist. Unfortunately for them that is a race they lost long before being born.


The best artists can do is to offer a unique adaptation of ideas that have likely already been explored at some point throughout the course of art history. The truth is that original art works all borrow in some way from the rich visual history of our collective past. An individual can't escape that unless he or she is cut from society during the early days of his or her life -- and if that were the case I doubt that many would know to pick up a paintbrush or other tool of creation in the first place.


All of the emotions you can think of, examples of political or social unrest, and other commonly explored themes in art have long been explored by artists since the beginning of time -- even before artists were called artists. It is a visual tradition that has followed us throughout history since people first decided to etch markings on cave walls.


In closing, regardless if you have original art for sale online, enjoy viewing original art online, or seek to buy original art online remember that in reality you are viewing the response of generations of information -- one generation building on to the next and so on. Nothing is truly original -- one can easily question if originality exists. What we must look for is unique adaptations -- individual responses to ideas that have been expressed visually in one form or the other for centuries. Every work of art is a continuation of our collective story -- and as any avid reader knows... some stories are better than others.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Related Posts:

Art and Art Criticism: The Specter of Originality

The Art of Painting: Is a painting ever really finished?

Keep on Keepin' On

Technical Skill as a Painter is Not Everything

Are You Guilty of this Originality Sin?

Topics: art appreciation | Brian Sherwin | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | painting | Think Tank | originality 

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Debra LePage
So true. We all are influenced by others who came before us-whether it is a style or materials used, we are inspired. We can choose to go beyond and experiment, push the limits but we all owe a debt of gratitude to past generations. May we all be mentors to the next.

Picasso once said "Good artists copy; great artists steal." Sounds a little crass, but the point was that all artists are inspired by others, and the great ones take that inspiration and put their own twist on it. Picasso was inspired by Cezanne, but one would never confuse their paintings with each other. I don't think that "originality in art is a ghost" - every once in a while someone breaks through with something really unique - Julian Schnabel Plate Paintings come to mind.

Brian Sherwin
Debra -- I like how you mentioned being mentors for the next generation. I think artists have that role -- though they may not realize it.

Artsology -- Good point about Picasso. Classic example. I see your point about Schnabel -- but at the same time he was no doubt influenced leading up to that point. That is how I view it anyway.

Debra LePage
A painter I know is so concerned others may copy her work/style that she will not have a website. She is not a young person and I cannot imagine why she feels so threatened.

Brian Sherwin
Debra-- Copyright infringement -- at least on the scale that would warrant a lawsuit -- is really not that common. Most law firms won't take a case on unless it involves big bucks.

As for style == style is not protected... it is fair game. If your friend were mine I would tell her to think ahead. After all, if someone is willing to 'steal' her style while she is alive you can bet that someone will be willing to steal it after she is gone and can no longer hide her works away. Point blank -- it is better to be known for what you do today than to set yourself up to be obscure tomorrow.

Debra LePage
I think it is more of an ego thing with many artists.

Jo Allebach
I considered it original if it was the first only painted, not a print/copy. Now with what has been said I guess you are right about originality.


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