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March 27th, 2009
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 05:46 pm

"What's the first sign of a masturbator? Hairs on your palm. What's the second sign? Looking for them!" That trick used to do the rounds at my school -- people invariably checked their palms between the first and second parts, and were therefore inevitably proved to be masturbators (which they all were anyway, of course, so the proof was infallible).

A similar trope appears in psychometric research into creativity, a subject that's always fascinated me. For educational psychologist Gary A. Davis, "personality characteristics of creative people include awareness of their creativity, originality, independence, risk taking, personal energy, curiosity, humour, attraction to complexity and novelty, artistic sense, open-mindedness, need for privacy, and heightened perception". The first sign of creativity, you might say, is believing in it, the second is looking for it. Belief in originality is productive of originality.

So who believes in creativity and originality in 2009? I decided to look at random at some NME reviews to see if they -- explicitly or implicitly -- talked about the originality and creativity of the records on offer. An AK Momo review -- the first I looked at -- didn't; it was more concerned that the record was twee, creepy, sexual. A review of the new Hatcham Social record also makes no references to originality, unless comparing the record approvingly to Lloyd Cole and The Fall is actually a statement about originality -- if it is, the message is that originality doesn't matter.

Okay, let's try the art press. Here's a review selected randomly from Frieze. It's a group show called Modern Ruins. It's mostly about the past. There's talk of "inspiration", but the word is used to mean "reference" -- "inspirations" here are simply acknowledged references to pre-existing works. One artist is commended for making a "playful comment" which is also a "political comment". (It's almost as though the playfulness has to be balanced by something more serious and worthy.) One artist makes work that's "beautifully executed", another has a "gothic imagination". The show's theme (the failure of modernist ideals) is described as "hackneyed", ie the opposite of original. So the idea of originality is present here, even if postmodernism's constant chain of references makes it problematical. Interestingly, it's the curator whose originality comes into question. So are curators not allowed to have "inspirations" and make "references", then?



Let's try another Frieze review. It's picked at random, but this happens to be a review of a performance show by a friend of mine, Jen Ray (she's Jason Forrest's partner). Rather than her "creative personality", the review locates her talent as something rooted in geography: "The North-Carolina born, Berlin-based artist possesses an edgier variant of the Southern talent for colourful fun." After several paragraphs of description, some qualitative evaluations come, but they're not about originality: "the degree of precision and clarity is impressive". There's approving talk of the work's "sources" in ritual and pop culture. There are some gender studies observations about the absence of men and the strength of women in the show. In a negative note, the reviewer says that negatives like aging and death, ugliness and sickness are absent. "But Ray’s work is undeniably beautiful and imaginative, its commitment to visual pleasure refreshing, and the artist clearly a fantastically talented draftswoman."

Finally, I scan my LiveJournal Friends List. Here there are signs of hope: Lucy Huntzinger is talking about pirate names, and says "Your name should be fierce, clever, imply unions with disgusting sea creatures or reference earlier pirates." Tradition, then, but originality too. Lord Whimsy is talking about the "ero-American patriot painter" Justine Lai, who paints herself having sex with historical American presidents: "I really like how Justine Lai went about this--and the work is nicely done, love the brushwork", says Whimsy, obviously a man who rates technique pretty highly. Elsewhere on the F-list there are Twitter star ratings that don't explain why, club invitations which say "the music is good and it's a lot of fun" and rock shows which, it is promised, "will rock". The hedonic seems to outrank the ideational here, but it is a Friday.

In this (admittedly brief and random) sampling, originality is not dead, but it's clearly rather low on the reviewer's list of things to look for. Postmodern appropriation and referentiality seems to have bumped it down the priorities list, and I'd argue that where it isn't looked for, originality won't flourish. If nobody's even talking about the hairs on your palm, they might as well not exist.

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