Sunday, April 18, 2010

what constitutes original art?

Temptation, 2010. Copper, sterling silver, plug adapter. 

Wow, Thursday's post about the subject of copying struck some nerves, I knew it was a hot issue but was unaware of the depth of anger involved for some - emails and comments were flying! Those of us who wrote on the topic all agreed that intentionally reproducing another artist's work and calling it your own is wrong, while some of us disagreed about what defines truly innovative work. For me this is the real heart of the issue, what characterizes new and original work, or more exactly, new and original ideas.

While I have certainly said things like, "it's all been done before", the truth is that I do believe there's room for innovation in art, but it is extremely rare. Picasso, da Vinci, Duchamp kind of rare. Truly original work involves
big ideas, not small ones. It is not defined by a particular composition, style, technique, or the use of a new material. Truly new ideas influence other artists and lead to major art movements, they are about seeing and presenting art in an entirely new way. I do think there's more room for innovation in conceptual art than other genres, as it is a mere zygote in a chronology that spans thousands of years. Innovation in wearable jewelry made for adornment? I don't think it's very likely, I've certainly never seen it.

Press On, 2001. Artificial Fingernails, Cotton, coral, steel cable, purse frame.
My approach to this issue is pretty academic and established, and plenty of artists are turned off by academia and "academic artspeak". While I agree that the art education system can be lofty and elitist, I also think it plays a very important role. While earning my MFA I learned to look at, think about, and discuss art differently. "Artspeak" is a dialect, and as such can be a very effective and efficient tool for communication. Like anything else it can also be bullshit.

At any rate, as you discuss and critique art from different time periods and genres using this language, you become acutely aware of the recurring ideas, motifs, aesthetic choices, materials, etc. that span centuries and cultures across the globe. My experiences working in the Education Dept. at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art reinforced my views, it was my extreme pleasure to work among and study artworks beginning with the Ancient Greek and Roman periods through New Media. In my opinion the Decorative Arts demonstrate the least amount of innovation through the ages.

Untitled, 2006. More than 2000 paper clips, pine, steel wire, acrylic paint.

None of this is to say that an artist can't have a unique style or voice, or forge new territories in terms of techniques and material use. For me these things are too small and narrow to qualify as true innovation and originality in the face of all of the art that millions of people have produced over centuries. Sure, I'd like to think I'm the only person who's made fingernail purses and paper clip sculpture based on basketry techniques, but I doubt it, and for me to state such a thing would be hubris.

So there you have it. Let the emails fly.


  1. very nicely put.... and keeping to the core of the issue - we agree copying is wrong.. in whatever way we personally view the details.... AND~ we all have very different opinions. which are all correct, for each of us. While I might disagree personally with parts of your ideas, it doesn't make them less right, or valid. my personal take is just that, my own personal take on the subject.

    I think personally, it is extra important to focus on those two things when we talk about hot topics such as this one is.

    And moving forward, that we treat each other with the respect for us each having such individual ideas and thoughts. we are not carbon copies of each other, ( thank the universe) so why do we expect explicit agreement on things?

  2. Thank you, and well-said yourself. Respect and tolerance are key.

  3. Delighted to read your very intelligent elaboration on the topic of copying, Tomi! Know that I share your point of view.

    This issue is complex and affects every maker; it would be easy to write a book or at least a chapter on it. It's difficult to do the subject justice in a short post, so you have to slice it up. I took a narrow slice close to the heart of the matter in my experience. But omitting so much, there's always room for misunderstanding.

    I'm wondering if we should do a sequel next month? On the other hand, perhaps dealing with the fall-out individually is fine too.

  4. Great way to put it and opens "food for thought". There will always be the Imitators, so, we have to continuously be steping outside the box to explore new ideas and works. That keeps it all fresh and original.

  5. Turns out 'innovate' is from Latin (that wonderful, dead language) innovatus, past participle of innovare "to renew or change," from in - "into" + novas "new". Whether or not "the Decorative Arts demonstrate the least amount of innovation through the ages" I know not. But their manifestations survive and are prized. Were Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane innovators? Certainly. But they weren't Picasso or da Vinci, in the sense that they took human artistic expression into a new dimension. Or did they? I enjoyed your philosophy or art expository statement immensely.

  6. Thanks for your comments. I'd certainly call John Coltrane an innovator, I think he "took human artistic expression into a new dimension", I'm not as familiar with Armstrong.