The un-myth of originality
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.
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.
My favorite totes from my Internet search are the graffiti-inspired bags created by Gail Rhyno.
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.
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.
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!