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Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 05:46 pm
Is anybody talking about originality?

"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.

36CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)

I just fired up my iPod and the first thing that appeared on the screen was the review I linked to yesterday for Hypo's Random Veneziano:

"In his previous albums, Hypo already made himself noticed because of the originality of his experimental electronica, without being too cerebral. And indeed, it's difficult to compare Hypo with anybody else."


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)

I'm interested in the statements you made about Lai's work, and Lai made about her own work. Your statement was of a technical nature, Lai's (the one you chose) is about denying a political or pornographic reading of the images.

I think her work is original, and it is in the "conceit", the idea of herself (an American-born Chinese, I'm assuming) fucking historical American presidents. Put that together with her chosen title, Join or Die, and it seems to me -- pretty inescapably -- to be about how you don't have a choice but to embrace your socialisation, as a first or second generation immigrant, with enthusiasm. You basically have to "fuck the president" or fuck off. And that would seem to relate to the idea that there is no place outside of society, even for an immigrant who might still have some ties to another society.

It seems to me that making this work a political statement is pretty much the same as denying this work makes a political statement, in that it's a focus on political statements. None of us are talking about originality at that point, and I'd suggest some reasons:

1. Lai herself can't be seen to blow her own trumpet. Nobody is allowed to say "I'm hella original", even though they probably think they ought to try to be.

2. There may be something like "structural originality" -- an editorial implication that "the very fact that we're talking about this artist means we think she's original". That's the "so-obvious-we-don't-even-need-to-mention-it" line, but I think it's a fudge. You do need to mention things that don't get mentioned.

3. There may also be, in the case of a female artist, a sense that for a male to declare her "original" is patronising -- an implication that women are not, in general, original. It seems more acceptable to praise her workmanship. Although of course that might also imply that women are not, in general, good workmen.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC)

originality, like beauty, tends to be in the eye of the beholder... people will spend hours arguing over what details in an artwork/piece of music/whatever are copied, where they're copied from, who has done something similar before, etc...

it is tricky though, there are often pieces of music or art made up of samples or appropriated images that are more innovative and fresh than "original" music or art that is using tired ideas. just because you wrote a song on a piano rather than a sampler, it doesn't mean you're not doing something that isn't tired or full of cliches.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)

also, i think you've got to be wary of signifiers of "originality" things like the use of new technology, "difficulty" "attitude" etc... if someone sticks a few electronic bleeps and bloops on their pretty bog-standard indie song, that doesn't make them original, but can give the impression of being cutting edge, new, whatever...


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timmccready
timmccready
Tim McCready
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)

Momus, will you please add me to your friends list?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC)

Done. I look forward to reading screeds of stuff about originality!


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)

Interestingly, I just stumbled across this today, and it has an image of Zelig, and Lafcadio Hearn -- Tactical Museum. Tokyo


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)

Isn't the pursuit of originality a little unoriginal at this point, being the primary aim of avant-garde modernism, a movement which is nearly 100 years old?

Or at least the whole idea of dispensing with aesthetic, technical, spiritual, and whatever other aims, strictly in favor of originality, might at least seem a bit like a stale perspective.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Mar. 27th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)

Isn't the pursuit of originality a little unoriginal at this point

Argh! Endlessly recursive slippage! You mean, if it's hackneyed to be original, it must be original to be hackneyed? But that if it's original to be hackneyed, it must be hackneyed to be hackneyed, and therefore original? Ack!

Disqualified, sorry. As Cage said: "If I can't say "non-goal" and mean non-goal instead of goal, then the language is of no use."


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:27 am (UTC)

The art world is rarely driven by technology and it still finds ways to be original. In the last several years, Vanessa Beecroft simply had models stand around in formation, and Rirkrit Tiravanija served food to anyone who came in. But of course, even though they seemed original, they had precedents. There was a long history of tableau vivants that's merely been abandoned for the last many decades, and there's a more recent tradition of Happenings which resemble Tiravanija's work. Likewise for almost all of the major transitions in art history.

(And I'm only using Beecroft and Tiravanija as examples because they're obviously original, obviously have little to do with technology, and ultimately come out of a tradition.)

I'm not saying that technology doesn't have a part (the invention of oil paints in the Renaissance or this century's synthetic house paints shows that it does) but in the art world, technology is usually a secondary motivator and today is no exception.

Also, technology doesn't explain the originality in fiction, e.g., Belano's 2666. That book's originality is based simply in original ways of stringing words and stories together. No technological advance needed. Similar thing for painting and art.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:13 am (UTC)

It's rarely mentioned because it's rarely experienced. Even when you do encounter the original, often you find out that it was only original to you, and soon find the precedents of the work in question.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:48 am (UTC)

I'm with Uber on this -- technology is just one of many kinds of context that can change, and, in changing, generate new possibilities for originality. And time passing is itself contextual change enough, as we saw in the anxious interval piece.

For instance, while you've been here debating, I've posted a new entry, so this one is old news! There's context change for ya!


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC)
Originality is theft plus lack of skill...

It's generally accepted that one of the most original works in the history of music is the Rite Of Spring (1913). The audience at its Paris premiere rioted, ensuring the work a succès de scandale.

What was original about it? The subject matter - pagan fertility rites and human sacrifice - was very different from anything you'd find in a Tchaikovsky ballet. The sheer noisiness - partly created by the huge percussion section - was new. Stravinsky's approach to rhythm was new - at least within the western classical tradition. The musical structure - a series of abrupt interruptions and discontinuities, probably inspired by the jump-cut editing of early silent movies - was also new to western music.

But some aspects of it aren't so new. Stravinsky was taught by Rimsky-Korsakov; he inherited a whole Russian tradition going back to Moussorgsky. Audiences and critics outside Russia weren't so familiar with this exotic musical tradition, so didn't notice the lineage of Stravinsky's art. Recently, musicologists have shown how whole pages of the Rite were effectively "sampled" from Skryabin - although these "sampled" pages feel very different in the context of the Rite from how they feel in Skryabin's music. Those same killjoy musicologists have also traced pretty much every melody in the Rite to two books of Lithuanian and Ukrainian folk songs known to have been in Stavinsky's possession.

And yet - with all that, I still think the Rite Of Spring really is original.

Someone said that originality is basically theft plus lack of skill. You try and rip something off, but you're not able to pull off a really good imitation. Almost inadvertently you hit on something really original instead. This isn't the whole story with Stravinsky, but it's an element of it, certainly. And I think he became aware of "incompetent forgery" as a conscious technique in his later music.

Another artist who was like that was Miles Davis. Miles invented the Cool partly because he wasn't able to play bebop properly. He just didn't have the chops. Later on he got really worried that jazz was no longer relevant to African Americans. So he set about trying to sell out, trying to incorporate sounds and approaches from music he thought was popular with African Americans, from Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, James Brown and others; trying to make "crossover" albums. But he almost always got it wrong - thank goodness. Albums like "On The Corner" and "Bitches Brew" are brilliantly original precisely because they're failed crossovers. Only "Tutu" successfully imitated the styles it was trying to. It's really a Marcus Miller album with Miles as guest soloist. I used to hate it. Now I think it's much better than I realized. But it's not as interesting as the albums where Miles gets it wrong (therefore right).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 28th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Originality is theft plus lack of skill...

originality is basically theft plus lack of skill

Yes, or repeating what someone said in a funny accent!

I looked at the link between "wrongness" and originality in this piece. And then in So wrong it's right.

I think the most original novel I read in college was Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School, which starts as a poorly-executed copy of Great Expectations and then wanders off into other stuff.


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harveyjames
harveyjames
harveyjames
Thu, Apr. 16th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)

Is the concept of originality held in the same regard in a country like Japan?


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