Art & Originality
Short Talk to Addapt Conference, San Francisco, June 5, 1999
What I wanted to do today was take you on a short, slightly rambling tour of thoughts on originality in art, both my own and those of artists that have come before us. I wanted to begin by reading the first stanza of a poem E.E. Cummings wrote in 1926: some ask praise of their fellows, but I being otherwise
made compose curves and yellows, angles or silences to a less erring end
"but i being otherwise." Alfred North Whitehead once said of scientists, "they do not discover in order to learn, they learn in order to discover." Human nature wages a battle between individuality and originality on one hand, and community and "fitting in" on the other. And where does it get us? Often -- trouble. Creating, pursuing originality, is often a destructive process. Every scientist, entrepreneur -- anyone chasing their bold dream -- is inherently making obsolete what came before. And as we all know, it sure adds difficulty to our lives.
First let me touch on originality itself. The debate of whether original thoughts still exist has gone on for centuries. In The Thought Gang, the British author Tibor Fisher wrote in his tongue-in-cheek way that all ideas were covered by the Greeks long ago, and we're just rehashing what we've collectively forgotten. It's a fear that resonates among many artists, especially painters these days because we've run the full range from purely representational to purely abstract.
It seems amusing to us, now that we've seen Duchamp's toilet bowl, Jackson Pollock's splattered canvases, and god forbid, even a Basquiat, to hear painters from previous centuries questioning whether all that could be done in painting had already been done.
Eugene Delacroix, a French artist in the first half of the 18th century, is an interesting case. His work, seen through modern eyes, seems very safe, but he was actually a passionate, individualistic man, who, while successful, was very much an outsider to the more popular, more formal school of David and Ingres. Delacroix loved color, movement, and vigorous painting, even though in the end, he always tempered his works to make them ready for "public viewing." But he laid the foundation, inspiring artists like Van Gogh to pick up where he left off and carry the mantle further.
Delacroix wrote two things in his journal that I want to share with you:
May 14, 1824 Paris;
,p>"The very people who believe that everything has already been discovered and everything said, will greet your work as something new, and will close the door behind you, repeating once more that nothing remains to be said." ... "Newness is in the mind of the artist who creates, and not in the object he portrays."
"What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."
One of the reasons why I love these quotes is they point out the hubris in assuming we've done all there is to do. It's a much safer bet that we are continually going to be tossed on our ass by something new. I hope so. Many are scared by this, but the creatives are terrified by the opposite and so we always try to buttress our belief that innovation can be attained.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a French artist twenty years younger than
Delacroix, wrote in his notebook in 1856:
"Be guided by feeling alone. We are only simple mortals, subject to error; so listen to the advice of others, but follow only what you understand and can unite in your own feeling. Be firm, be meek, but follow your own convictions. It is better to be nothing than an echo of other painters. The wise man has said: When one follows another, one is always behind."
This transitions me into the next area I wanted to touch on. I believe that interacting with others leads to greater innovation than ivory-tower, closed-system work. It's something that a lot of artists wrestle with. For centuries, art academies taught through copying. Today, some artists say, "I won't look at what has come before, I won't go to galleries or museums, I won't read or talk to artists, and thus I can't help but be original." It's an argument with some validity, but I believe that you can't escape the human and historical context within which we live and work.
Originality and individuality cannot exist without its opposite. You might remember the old Monty Python line in The Life of Brian, where crowds of people have come to worship their proclaimed, and highly unwilling, Messiah. And he says to them, you don't need me, you can think for yourself, you are all individuals. The crowd chants back in unison, "yes, we are all individuals, we are all individuals." Far in the back, a tiny voice squeaks out -- "I'm not." You are original because you are different from something else.
John Sloan and Robert Henri were two American painters at the turn of this century who helped break the American art scene out of its stagnant conservatism. They didn't want to paint pretty, clean pictures. Sometimes their innovation was in their subject matter -- dirty street scenes of prostitutes in New York -- and sometimes it was simply in the vigour and roughness of their brushstroke in a landscape. Both were art teachers and, luckily for us, wrote down their thoughts in two wonderful books.
Robert Henri wrote in his 1923 book The Art Spirit:
"We are not here to do what has already been done."
"I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know."
"Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. All the past can help you."
In 1939, John Sloan wrote in Gist of Art:
"Sometimes it is best to say something new with an old technique, because ninety-nine people out of a hundred see only technique. Glackens had the courage to use Renoir's version of the Rubens-Titian technique and he found something new to say with it.
Cezanne may have tried to paint like El Greco, but he couldn't help making Cezannes. He never had to worry about whether he was being original.
Don't be afraid to borrow. The great men, the most original, borrowed from everybody. Witness Shakespeare and Rembrandt. They borrowed from the technique of tradition and created new images by the power of their imagination and human understanding. Little men just borrow from one person. Assimilate all you can from tradition and then say things in your own way.
There are as many ways of drawing as there are ways of thinking and thoughts to think."
Keith Haring, the late pop artist, also wrote an interesting comment in his Journal:
October 14, 1978, NYC
"No artists are part of a movement. Unless they are followers. And then they are unnecessary and doing unnecessary art. If they are exploring in an 'individual way' with 'different ideas' the idea of another individual, they are making a worthy contribution, but as soon as they call themselves followers or accept the truths they have not explored as truths, they are defeating the purpose of art as an individual expression -- Art as art."
You can say something old in a new voice, and you can say something new in an old voice. If you want to get really fancy, you can even occasionally say something new in a new voice. I believe very strongly that originality still exists in art and painting, although it is getting tougher. Originality exists in something as simple as your signature. Too often we close off our creativity by over-thinking and seeking approval. Yes, we are social creatures, we need approval, we need community. But to those of us who are hard-wired to seek our own path, you have to remember to put aside the comments of fashion and the criticism of the establishment. Believe in yourself, pursue your individuality, and the journey will be worth the trouble.
I want to end with a quote from John Sloan. He was speaking on art, but his words can be applied to all individualism:
"Though a living cannot be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes living, living. It makes starving, living. It makes worry, it makes trouble, it makes a life that would be barren of everything -- living. It brings life to life."
by Giff Constable