Ramblings on ‘originality’, and a wasp

(Notes for a zoom discussion with a small group of local artists)

Originality in art – what is it? Does it matter? Who exemplifies it?

Relevant words/concepts: ‘derivative’ (a bad thing), ‘in the school of’ (neutral), ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.

What is originality?

  • doing something that hasn’t been done before – in subject matter, or method or medium
  • not imitative
  • not formulaic
  • breaking the accepted rules of a practice or medium
  • using a new medium
  • doing something that is new for the maker? that is, does it matter whether the work is similar to something already existing if the artist was not aware of that thing? This goes back to the first bullet above – ‘something that hasn’t been done before’ by whom? The individual, the local culture, humanity as a whole?

Does it matter? If so, why? Is it more important/’better’ to do a new thing than to do an old thing well? If originality matters in art, why is reproducing reality, and particularly photorealism, so popular? How does the concept of originality relate to that of creativity?

Is originality prized by the art market because it implies rarity and hence financial value?

Exemplar: Tim Knowles (see http://www.timknowles.co.uk/)

  • I came across this artist years ago when I googled ‘tree drawing’, looking for drawings of trees. His work (including drawings by trees) stuck in my head ever since, and luckily google found him again.
  • his work uses natural phenomena (including people) to translate movement in through space/time into images – traces, time lapse photographs – very different results/methods but unified by a single intelligence.

Other exemplars proposed during the discussion:

Picasso (especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Demoiselles_d%27Avignon

Yayoi Kusama https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/yayoi-kusama

And then one of our group found this (not really a debate – just two responses to the question): https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-debate-originality-overrated

Gayford:

distinctiveness and individuality are important …. Perhaps those attributes, however, are a bit like destinations in Alice Through the Looking Glass: you get where you want to go more quickly by setting off in another direction.

Cork:

If art is to be life-changing, it must break the rules, even if we find that unsettling…

True originality in art can never be overrated….we should all engage with even the most unsettling experiences that originality in art provides. Nothing is more depressing than the attitude of viewers who approach innovative work with all their prejudices rigidly intact, refusing to accept that art has a fundamental right to defy even our most hallowed preconceptions. If the importance of originality is not recognised, academicism becomes rampant, repetitive dullness prevails and artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.

Which led me to this reaction:  

Gayford and Cork seem to be talking past each other. Gayford approaches it from the artist’s perspective while Cork is talking more about reception – and that may explain why they answer the question differently. It doesn’t make sense for an artist to ‘try and be original’ as their main goal (because it’s too abstract and it implies you have to learn about the whole of art history first in order to know whether you are being original). But a viewer may be looking for the new, or the original, when they go to the gallery.

Cork finds it necessary to point out that originality is not the preserve of the young and gives several examples of artists whose late work was ground-breaking. I’d think that ‘true originality’ (though that’s a loaded phrase – what would ‘false originality’ look like?) is likely to arise after someone has developed their skills and applied their mind to an artform and then chosen to pursue their own path, whether that means breaking with or continuing a tradition.

If we think of other art forms such as music, I suspect that rule-breaking is not necessary for a work to be ‘life-changing’. Cork’s view seems to imply that originality cannot be a feature of any individual work that is part of a tradition, which again ties the concept to an art historical context, and suggests that you can’t have originality without a tradition whose rules can be broken, and only an informed audience can recognise. And surely what is ‘life-changing’ or ‘revelatory’ will depend on the viewer as much as on the innovativeness of the work. Part of what was life-changing for Picasso seems to have been exposure to art from the traditions of other cultures. It was new to him and this fed into his own (from a European point of view) revolutionary art.

Anecdote:

When I was at art school, one of our tutors (whose remit was the more abstract/conceptual end of the course, as opposed to figurative drawing and modelling) used to irritate us students by saying, when we had explained our idea for an assignment, ‘have you seen the work of so-and-so?’, thereby pointing out that something like what we had thought of doing had already been done. At the time this seemed distinctly unhelpful. I don’t want the wind taken out of my sails by seeing someone else’s similar approach. But these days, having been inspired by Lucian Freud in trying to paint, if anyone said, your work is a bit like Freud, I’d be extremely pleased! What’s wrong with attempting to following a master?

And because words are boring without pictures here’s something I did recently which I haven’t done before. The wasp found its way into my bedroom, buzzing loudly and then died. So I drew it, and then made a linocut.

wasp, charcoal and pastel
wasp, linocut, with date added because this feels like an important time

Keep well everyone.

Living is easy with eyes closed – references

The exhibition at the Old Fire Station in Carlisle came down on Monday 30 September. People’s responses were encouraging, so I am planning to look for other venues where it might be shown. Suggestions welcome.

Absent Gardener

Here is some of the associated reading matter, with minor additions.

Titles of mirror boxes:

‘Hope’s Eggs’ or
‘Pandora was here’

‘Flotilla’ or
‘Alice’s Tears’

‘Silos’ or
‘Ivory Towers’

‘The Absent Gardener’ or
‘The Legacy’

‘Rat Race’ or
‘The Delusion of Infinity’

‘Museum’ or
‘The Obsolescence of Posterity’

Acknowledgements/references/borrowings/sources/resonances

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me

‘Strawberry Fields’, John Lennon

But also:

She needed to contemplate with eyes closed the full richness of what she had lost, what she had given away, and to anticipate the new regime.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

‘Pandora’s box’

According to Hesiod, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the gods, took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a jar left in his care, containing sickness, death and many other unspecified evils which were then released into the world. Though she hastened to close the container, only one thing was left behind – usually translated as Hope, though it could also have the pessimistic meaning of ‘deceptive expectation’.

Wikipedia

‘Alice’s tears’

‘I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. ‘I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears! That will be a queer thing, to be sure! However, everything is queer to-day.’

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

‘Flotilla/ivory towers’ – belatedly I noticed the links to childhood memories of the Moomins (and even more belatedly to the Hattifatteners in their little boats):

Comet in Moominland p. 141
The moomins travelling on stilts across a dried up seabed to warn Moominvalley that the comet is coming.

Comet in Moominland p. 150

Hattifatteners

Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson

Museum (sand)

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

‘Ozymandias’, PB Shelley

Hope’s egg

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

Emily Dickinson

Living is easy with eyes closed 2 – exhibition preparations

I’m two-thirds of the way through my 3-month summer ‘sabbatical’ project, though the sabbatical is getting a bit fuzzy as I’m still doing a bit of proofreading to keep my hand in/cover materials costs, and will still be doing exhibition preparation in September I expect. And of course there’s the exhibition week itself, when I’ll be there every day to steward things and maybe do a bit of drawing in situ.

So far things are going more or less to plan.

I’ve only got one more of the twelve big drawings to do and a sitter is scheduled for that. I put together the plinths for the mirror boxes a while ago and now I need to decide whether to paint them and, if so, whether to go with the usual white or something else.

mdf plinths
mdf plinths

The frame structures for the drawings are about half done. Procrastinating about these was useful as it gave me time to come up with a very simple method of suspending the drawings, using just a 6mm steel rod and two holes drilled inside the frame. I just have to ‘hem’ the drawings to create a channel for the rod to slide through.

frames for large drawings
here are two hinged pairs of frames (in a very messy workspace)

frame detail
and a detail of the construction with one drawing in place

I’ve started to apply myself to the boring bit: publicising the exhibition. I have designed a flyer which is now at the printers, emailed the local paper and created a facebook event – as I said, boring! Here’s a link to the facebook event:

https://www.facebook.com/events/2231186130332533/?ti=as

If nothing else this summer I’ve practised some basic woodwork and other DIY skills – a great thing about ‘art’ is that it can take you from fairly abstract, metaphorical ideas about isolation and climate change to practicalities like how to fix a drawing to a freestanding frame and simple tasks like cutting dowels for lap joints. And those simple practicalities can sometimes take you back to the ideas, when materials or functional requirements yield unexpected metaphors and linkages of their own.

Plans and maquettes

A couple of weeks ago I posted this on Facebook:

In the light of impending Br%&!t and climate apocalypse and a large birthday later this year, I have decided to give myself permission to focus on art this summer. So I will be taking a short sabbatical from editing and proofreading starting in June. Various plans are coming together, which mean I will be looking for people willing to sit for some drawings. Watch this space! And let me know if you fancy sitting still for an hour or three at some point.

The silver lining/antidote to apocalyptic thinking … stop worrying about how you’ll cope in retirement (or when the washing up will happen) and just make stuff. 

It seems that as soon as you give yourself this kind of permission it’s hard not to start thinking and planning and then playing, regardless of self-imposed schedules.

_20190418_1806411040192666.jpg

Beginning to get an idea out of my head and into the world – and immediately seeing that my planned scale doesn’t look as I imagined it would. That will save some time and expense later – three cheers for maquettes.