We are ever (only) temporary
Present tense presences
Tempering our temporality
with a pretence
We are ever (only) temporary
Present tense presences
Tempering our temporality
with a pretence
(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?
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/)
Other exemplars proposed during the discussion:
Picasso (especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Demoiselles_d%27Avignon
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
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.
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.
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.
Keep well everyone.
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.
Here is some of the associated reading matter, with minor additions.
Titles of mirror boxes:
‘Hope’s Eggs’ or
‘Pandora was here’
‘The Absent Gardener’ or
‘Rat Race’ or
‘The Delusion of Infinity’
‘The Obsolescence of Posterity’
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
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
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’.
‘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, Tove Jansson
‘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’ 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 –
The exhibition is now up at the Old Fire Station in Carlisle. Here are a few pictures, without people (I was chatting too much to remember to take photos during the preview).
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here’s a couple of images for the current emergency.
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.
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.
Playing with Chinese ink
and a dog drawing:
I have a natural inclination to look for clarity in writing and ‘accurate’ observation in art – are these mistakes? Or lack of imagination?
I am only just beginning to realise that/how/why obscurity, abstraction (and invention?) are important too. The ‘clearer’ a statement, the more ‘true to reality’ an image seems to be, the easier it is to pass over them without engagement, to leap to a conclusion. You get it (label it) and move on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.
But if you want to provoke a reader to think, not just to accept what you say uncritically, if you want the viewer to pay attention, to look hard, maybe obscurity, unclarity, is a good thing. Something that makes you ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Something that breaks the flow, stops the eye, makes you go back and look again, think again. (Is this why ‘decorative’ was a bit of a dirty word at art school and ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’ are damning with very faint praise, because a ‘nice’ thing won’t make us stop and think?)
It’s not just about tricks of the trade, speaking softly so people have to listen, manipulating an audience. If art is about the doing more than the product, this means that you have been provoked to thought yourself. The eye, the mind, that must be engaged and surprised is yours, the writer, the maker. And sometimes playing, not planning, is the best thing to do. Exploring, not arriving. Suspending judgement.
To assume that you can express a thought ‘clearly’, or a perception ‘accurately’ may be the basic error, to fall for Descartes’ myth of ‘clear and distinct ideas’.
The flowing line needs interruption, the glib, ‘self-evident’ thought needs examination. Facility à facile?
The unexpected, the unpredictable is what engages, what interests us.
Even when what you are trying to do is render how something really appears to you, you have to look beyond your assumptions, formulas, clichés, etc., because ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Drawing what you see, not what you expect to see.
I’ve often been uncomfortable with the emphasis on ‘originality’ in art. It seems like a terrible burden to place on an artist or student – to do something no one’s ever done before. And doing something new for the sake of newness always seemed a mistake to me.
But if the unexpected, the surprising, is what engages us, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being original is the point? Certainly, seeing something you’ve never seen before or meeting an idea that never occurred to you is part of what we value in art or writing.
But (another ‘but’) it’s that ‘for sake of’ that is the problem, I think. Making originality the goal is useless because it implies nothing positive. ‘Just don’t repeat.’ So do we have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history before we begin, to make sure it hasn’t been done before?
We don’t want to be derivative, ideally; in that sense we want to be original, which means to think for ourselves, to address the world as we see it, and ask our own questions. Whether that results in something that other people would see as ‘new’ is a different matter (that’s probably part of what distinguishes the ‘great’ from the rest of us). In any case, what other people see as new depends on what they have seen before (just as whether an artist’s work is derivative depends partly on what they are familiar with – similarity to someone else’s work you’ve never seen can’t be derivative of that work).
Originality in the sense of ‘unlike what has gone before’ or ‘new to the world’ may matter to the well-informed receiver, but for the maker originality must about how they personally arrive at the work. They find something out by doing it. Copying is (usually) unoriginal, not because the result looks like the thing copied, but because the copier is letting the source do their thinking or looking. (A bad copy isn’t more original because it looks less like the source than a good one, though it may be more interesting to look at.)
Well, dear imaginary reader, you may be thinking ‘this is all so obvious – we’ve heard it all before!’ – but I feel as though I haven’t thought about these things before in quite this way, so that’ll have to do. Now here are a couple of drawings – enjoying pencil on paper.
I seem to be getting back to some kind of productivity via the pleasure of ink on paper:
but here’s one answer to the question: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage