Sunday, July 20, 2008

Originality a Detriment in Art?

I think originality is an essential element in art, but in yesterday’s entry I was suggesting that there are many cases of great art where the degree of originality is arguably not very high, but this does not detract from the art’s value or its impact on us.

Today I will go a step further and suggest that originality and the impact art can have on us exist in a kind of inverse relationship; that is, a groundbreaking, highly original work of art is less likely to move us than a work that uses techniques and conventions with which we are familiar, albeit in an original way. Or, put another way, if someone makes up a beautiful poem in Klingon language, most of us are unlikely to be moved by unless we know Klingon. Which, alas, I do not.

But first an explanation of why this topic interests me.

I post my music at, a site where anyone who wishes to can upload their music for the purposes of getting feedback from others. I like it a lot; it is very welcoming to people who make the effort to be involved, which I suspect is true of all on-line communities.

In addition to written comments, you can also vote on the others’ music (although some artists choose to disable this option for their submissions, preferring to receive comments only). The voting system goes from 1 to 10 in four categories, one of which is “originality/creativity,” which is explained as follows: “Has this artist created something unique or pushed the musical boundaries?”

The answer to this question is clearly “no” for every piece I have ever heard there, including my own music, if one understands “unique” to mean "highly unusual or rare," "the single one of its kind," or "radically distinctive and without equal" (definitions I found at Fear not, gentle reader; I do not therefore go around MacJams giving scores of “1” in this category. I do what I suspect most voters do; I give high scores to music that doesn’t sound too much like a blatant rip-off of something else, and medium scores to music that does. Being Canadian, I am unable to give low scores.

In any event, the existence of this voting category at MacJams got me thinking about the meaning of “originality/creativity” (which I see as two separate categories, by the way, but that is a discussion for another day) and the importance of originality in the evaluation or creation of art.

The other reasons that this topic interests me are that (a) I am a composer, and it’s an issue that is on my mind whenever I write music, and (b) I am a composition teacher, and an idea that I try to communicate to students is that being overly concerned with the originality of something one is writing is dangerous, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any of one’s musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

On the other hand, I would like students to at least be aware that at least some originality is essential if one does not wish to write music that sounds like somebody else's. As with so many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance.

Tomorrow I will post a slightly edited comment I made on the subject in a MacJams forum discussion about a year ago, and then I promise I’ll move on to other topics!

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