Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

The un-myth of originality

2009 . 08 . 02

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There’s a lot of talk about the so-called “myth of originality.” Many academics and artists like to argue that there is nothing new under the sun, that creatives will only ever repeat what has come before, and that genuine novelty is unattainable. In truth, originality is a fact of life, and the people who say that originality is impossible are looking in the wrong place.

Luckily, our copyright law has it figured out.* From www.copyright.gov:

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

The law makes the difference between an idea and its expression—between content and form—and that’s the difference between originality being a myth and originality being real. Novelty happens in the expression of an idea and not (necessarily) in the idea itself. We live in a world full of people all living lives that are more closely related than we sometimes like to think, so we’re bound to make art that’s similarly derived without ever being merely derivative. It isn’t unusual for two or more of us to come up with the same concept, but that doesn’t matter. Originality is not in what you do but in how you do it.


Megan Ward's You Bag

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas bag
12 x 19 inches

A few years ago, I got it into my head to paint portraits directly on canvas totes. I never thought that my idea was particularly inventive, and a quick search online for “hand painted canvas bags” reveals that it’s not. 

Gail Rhyno's Love Lust

Gail Rhyno’s Love Lust

My favorite totes from my Internet search are the graffiti-inspired bags created by Gail Rhyno


Raha The Riveter, portrait of an Iranian-German-American

Gwenn Seemel
Raha The Riveter
acrylic on canvas
41 x 38 inches

When I started on Raha The Riveter in late 2007, I had not yet discovered the blog On My Mind or the image accompanying this article in particular. Though my painting stems from the same concept as foreverloyal’s image—putting Rosie in a hijab—the form and, to some degree, the meaning is different.


portrait painting

Gwenn Seemel
Brutally Honest
acrylic on canvas patchwork
20 x 20 inches
“You’re false advertising.  You’re actually a nice guy.” - 25
Reply to: anonPOST-123 @craigs.org
Date: 2005-05-09, 12:02PM PDT
This was one woman’s excuse for not dating me any more. So what this means is that if you’re looking for a nice guy who masquerades as an asshole, I’m your man.
I’m a young urban professional. I have a college education, a good job that pays bills and leaves me with play money, a car, and an awesome apartment. I am a consumer, and I like it. I now need artwork for my spacious walls, can you recommend any good places to get some? Read more…

In 2006, I created a series of painted portraits of men I had met through the personals on craigslist.org. I called the series Mutually Beneficial, and I exhibited the subjects’ personal ads along with their portraits. Brutally Honest and the subject’s text above is just one of the works from the series.

Mark Andrews' de-classified.com

Posted 3 months ago at 9:06 am.
if u have a passion 4 art and sex u need to see me.i cant wait 2 see u.

This photo and personal ad is from de-classified, a series created by Mark Andrews. Though Andrews’ work juxtaposes an artist’s portrait with the subject’s ad in a way that is similar to Mutually Beneficial, our projects each have an unmistakable feel and purpose.

In all three of these examples, the ideas behind the works are approximately the same, but the results are distinct. Furthermore, the works don’t lose anything when seen in the context of similarly derived pieces: if anything, they’re stronger for it. Two or more takes on the same notion reveal the subtleties and nuances—the originality—of each individual’s work.


*This is probably the only instance of this otherwise corrupted and completely corporate-interest law getting something right!

- Changing ideas about copyright
- John T Unger says “DEFEND ART.”
- Free culture

CATEGORIES: - English - TOP POSTS - Featuring artists - Philosophy - Uncopyright -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

-- Sheila -- 2009 . 08 . 04 --

You have one of the most informative and equally artistic blog I’ve seen since I started blogging last December.  I am so happy I found you!

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-- Pia f. Walker -- 2009 . 08 . 06 --

I agree with Sheila! I appreciate the time you take to write, research, and document your work and then share it on this blog.
I’m amazed at your project ideas and can’t wait to see what you are up to next.
Thank you for sharing your work with the world, one face at a time!

Pia f. Walker

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 08 . 09 --

Thank you both!

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-- Emma McCreary -- 2010 . 09 . 06 --

Great examples and I agree with your point, but I’m confused about your take on copyright law being corporate-interest. I thought the original point of the law was to protect artists from having their work used by big business and never getting any payment. Royalties ensure that if you use someone’s song in your ad for Pepsi, you have to pay for it…that seems like a really good thing to me.

I agree that people get all bent out of shape sometimes…if another artist copies some idea, but both are putting their own selves into it, then great, no foul.

But if a corporation blatantly lifts someone’s idea, mass-produces it, makes a ton of money off it, and doesn’t have to pay the person who originally created and developed it anything…that sucks. And I think that’s what copyright law was designed for, not to keep individual artists from developing similar ideas in their own unique way.

I guess what I’m saying is that idea + technique can = tons of money, if brought to market by a much bigger company, even (maybe especially) if the finished work is soulless. And the original person behind it should get some of that money, or have the right to refuse that ever happening.

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 09 . 06 --

The problem is that media companies own a lot of contemporary artists’ output through contracts with the artists and have also purchased the rights to older artists’ output (here I’m thinking of the music industry, which the rest of us creatives can learn a lot from).  If there is a copyright to be owned, corporations will find a way to own it and then use the money they have to legally enforce copyright.  And that last part is something that most creatives don’t have the money to do.  Creatives can “own” copyrights to their work until they’re blue in the face, but they usually don’t have the resources to do anything about it if someone tries to infringe on those rights.  John T Unger’s case is an unfortunate example of this.

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-- rhiah -- 2010 . 11 . 26 --

Wonderful! I have been thinking about snowflakes and how each one is unique. Each artist is unique as is each person. In the world that I am helping to co-create, sharing, collaborating, and respecting each one’s pattern is going to be so important.

Loved your point that if you are afraid of being copied, are you IN your work enough!!

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