marcus westbury

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Originality? Now there’s a novel idea.

June 16th, 2010 by marcus

TO ALL of you who have suddenly developed a concern for the lack of originality in art and culture: Thank you! I’m pleased, but frankly, I can’t say I entirely understand it.

To be honest much of the reaction to the Sam Leach’s winning of the Wynne prize has flat out confused me. It’s not that I don’t understand the debate. I got that Leech’s work Proposal for landscaped cosmos was inspired by – perhaps questionably copied from — a Dutch work that may not have been appropriately acknowledged. I got that there was a legitimate question as to whether Leach’s work met the prize’s terms as a depiction of an “Australian” landscape. What surprised me is that it has suddenly become fair game to call art on whether it is truly “original” or not.

It’s about time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a child of appropriation, sampling, collage and pastiche. It doesn’t bother me that artists such as Sam Leach and thousands of others are out there appropriating a range of different contexts to make works. In a world where we are bombarded with uninvited images, fragments, sounds and sights, and where there are layers upon layers of cultural memory and reference points, it is to be expected that artists will seek to reference and use it.

The test for me is whether an artist brings together those elements to make a work that is substantially unique – that they add weight and not just volume to our cultural heritage. If so, then the full gamut of human experience and endeavour is fair game as source material as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not a new thing. Culture has morphed, evolved, cannibalised itself, built and bent on its own traditions going back well before the advent of modern technology or the infuriating academic postmodernism I was subjected to at university.

However, I am concerned about originality. Artists that appeal to me aspire to do that, and I find myself agreeing with those who argue that we’ve institutionalised lazy adaptation and elevated them to the highest echelons of our cultural priorities and hierarchies.

But the visual arts are hardly the worst culprit. The occasional art prize pales compared with the well-funded cover bands that make up the bulk of our national arts expenditure. When was the last time we criticised an orchestra or an opera company for simply busting out thinly veiled adaptations and unoriginal work? What if people realise that the much-heralded arrival of Waiting for Godot is actually a copy of a work that’s been around for ages?.

The sad fact is that the arts wallow in unoriginality all the time. It is only strange this time we are criticising it rather than purely rewarding it. In the performing arts it has become a structural problem that has become self-fulfilling. Original work is pushed to the bottom of the pile. The strongest criterion about whether a work is likely to be funded, promoted, discussed or endorsed is almost always how familiar it is. Work that is safe, marketable and predictable is nurtured for precisely that reason.

Not only is the underlying source material more refined but productions are better resourced. For every person involved in producing new works there are probably a hundred more involved in and reproducing, administering and marketing old ones.

I’ve worked almost exclusively with artists creating new works. It isn’t easy. It is a messy process. There’s a lot of trial and error involved.

Originality inherently fails more often than it succeeds. It involves risk both financial and professional and in a politically sensitive art funding environment risk of failure, controversy, and anything that may generate an unpredictable headline is almost always problematic.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Artists persist in creating new works despite the odds and there are many admirable companies, festivals and awards that remain truly committed to celebrating them. Now that we apparently are being invited to put originality at the centre of the discussion about what we want to promote in the arts, perhaps we are being encouraged to value them.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Jun 16, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    There is a sort of paradox about originality. The theory of the origin of all ‘originality’ is called ‘Darwin’s theory of the Origin of the Species’ :- Error prone copying when combined with selection pressure (survival of the fittest) is the engine of all forms of evolution.
    Hofstadter was right when he said that ‘variations on a theme’ is the basis of all innovation.
    ‘Appropriation’ is quoting- it is not re-producing; Cultural evolution is is what happens when the quotation marks are striped off and thus the ‘quote’ becomes once again, a set of instructions ,an action- a movement of mind. Hence the paradox without copying there is no Meta (change )- there is only Stasis.

    Modern art education is pretty poor because it combines an almost total lack of a meta-understanding of the complex , highly recursive, nature of symbolic systems of representation With ignorance or even open hostility to wide-ranging & deep knowledge as the essential basis for all good teaching.