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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Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Important is Originality in Art?

How important is originality in art? I think most people would agree that it is an essential ingredient; if an extremely talented painter were to create a version of the Mona Lisa that was indistinguishable from the original it might sell for a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars, whereas if the actual Mona Lisa is as close to priceless as possible for a painting. Two identical works of art; one original, and one a reproduction, but the first is much more highly-valued than the second by virtue of its originality. The Mona Lisa's (and Da Vinci's) iconic status doesn't hurt either…

But there are cases where a lack of originality seems less crucial to the value ascribed to a work of art. Many artists have created numerous variants of the same thing, or similar things -- consider Monet's approximately 250 paintings of water lilies (as well as his London Houses of Parliament, Poplars, Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and Mornings on the Seine series), Degas' extraordinary penchant for dancers as a subject (more than half of his vast output of paintings, drawings, and sculptures is devoted to the activities of the ballet dancers and dance students), or Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers — all highly regarded, but, thematically, not particularly original.

If you enjoy visiting art museums when you travel, there is a reasonable chance you may have seen Rodin's "The Thinker," his most famous work, and one of the most-recognized (and most-satirized) sculptures ever. The original was 27.5 inches high, but there are over 20 additional casts of the work in various sizes, most of which were executed by his apprentices, as I understand it. Their lack of originality does not prevent them from being prominently displayed (and hence valued) in museums around the world.

The paintings in Monet’s Houses of Parliament series are both similar – each is of the same subject, from the same vantage point, and on the same size canvas -- and dissimilar – each view represents a different time of day (which alters the lighting) and a different atmospheric conditions (hazy, foggy (or smoggy), different cloud formations). The point, as it relates to originality, is that Monet did not attempt to paint a series of completely different (and therefore highly original) paintings; he wanted to paint the same thing repeatedly in slightly different ways, and we value each individual painting highly nonetheless.

These examples, and many others, would suggest that the role of originality in evaluating art is sometimes relatively minor.

Stravinsky is supposed have said “good composers borrow, great composers steal,” [ 1 ]← which is itself an adaptation (or theft?!) of T. S. Elliott’s “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” from Elliott's essay on English dramatist Phillip Massinger (1920). It is a clever line, the merits of which are of course debatable, but for me the point is that artists are influenced by one another, and part of the way we discover our own artistic voices is by emulating or appropriating, to varying degrees, the work of others.

Music if filled with elements common to different composers within an historical period and sometimes across periods. When we study tonal harmony, we learn that in the "common-practice period" (roughly 1700-1900, in Europe), there were guidelines governing the way in which chords progressed. These guidelines have numerous restrictions as well as some freedoms, but the fact that there are guidelines of any sort means that originality in chord progressions was not highly valued.

Other common elements from that period include the widespread use of a limited selection of musical forms, chief among them sonata form, as well as rondo, binary, ternary, and theme & variations, the use of Alberti bass accompaniment figures (although it had numerous variants), an extremely-limited selection of cadence types (virtually every composition from that period ended with an 'authentic' (V-I) cadence), phrase lengths and structure (although numerous exceptions can be found), and writing for commonly-found ensembles such as the string quartet.

And yet, despite the restrictive nature of these common elements, thousands of wonderful works were written. There is originality to be found in all great (or even good!) works to be sure, but, as with Monet’s parliament paintings, the differences are often fairly nuanced.

•More tomorrow!

  • [ 1 ]Although there are numerous attributions of this quote to Stravinsky all over the web, I have not come across any that actually cite a source for it. Did he actually say this? Or is it a sentiment that hacks the world over like to attribute to a famous composer in order to justify theft of intellectual property? [ ↑ ]
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