Originality, Authenticity and Art

Generally, to say that a creative work is “original” is praise of the highest order, while to describe it as “unoriginal” is tantamount to calling it worthless. I believe that this attitude neglects one essential ingredient: authenticity.

In a truly remarkable creative work, originality of concept is married with authenticity of execution and masterful craftsmanship. Artworks that fit this criteria are few and far between, and in fact are often considered somewhat idiosyncratic. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch is one such work. Radically original, undeniable authentic, and expertly painted.

The “David” statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – the the first sculpture to capture the “Baroque moment” just before a motion takes place – is another. The gigantic dome of the Florence Cathedral, engineered using bricks, iron splices and stone chains by Filippo Brunelleschi (who also invented the artistic technique of linear perspective) in the mid-fifteenth century, and which still dominates the Florentine skyline today is surely another.

However, for most of human history, absolute originality of concept was not considered to be a prerequisite for greatness. Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is conceptually nothing more than a portrait of a woman. Michelangelo’s magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, along with most other Renaissance art, depict well-known Bible stories. To put it another way, WHAT you were saying wasn’t nearly as important as HOW you were saying it. Today, with the fetishization of novelty, the emphasis has been reversed. Does it appear to be new and different? If not, the mainstream attitude seems to be, “don’t bother.”

I believe that, all too often, this attitude leads to inordinate popularity for work that displays novelty of execution masquerading as originality of concept, and marginalization for wonderful pieces of art that are authentic and masterful explorations of existing concepts.

Walt Disney understood this, although the successors to his media empire have forgotten it. “Snow White” and “Cinderella” were not original ideas. But Disney took those hoary tales and executed them in a way that was deeply authentic to the nature of the fables: their innocence, their magic, their wonder. Compare those movies to “The Princess and the Frog,” a carefully-prepared and soulless gumbo of politically-correct bullet points and overproduced music tracks.

“Pulp Fiction” is another example of novelty of execution masquerading as originality of concept. “Pulp Fiction” is not pulp fiction. It is an IMITATION of pulp fiction; a gimmicky hodgepodge of retrospective pop culture elements, presented in an entertaining way by a talented filmmaker. It is, I would argue, not true to itself in the way that the gangster movies of the ’40s and ’50s were true to themselves.

Finally, I respectfully present for your attention “Star Wars.” Embraced with almost religious fervor by three generations of fans, I consider the “Star Wars” films collectively to be the foremost example of misplaced affection in the history of popular culture. While undeniably entertaining, I find the whole series to be deeply inauthentic. It’s not that George Lucas took the mythology analysis of Joseph Campbell, combined it with various Asian elements and called it his own work that bothers me, it’s that Star Wars isn’t HONEST about itself. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster pretending not to be made of dead people: something just doesn’t smell right.

Paradoxically, this obsession with originality has led to the most unoriginal era in history. Look at the current crop of books, TV shows and movies: two movies and a TV series featuring Snow White? Countless variations on the theme of zombie apocalypse? Of course, this has more to do with the intersection of art and commerce than with public taste. It’s much safer to invest in a “proven” concept like zombies than in something innovative, even if innovation is what the audience is begging for.

My assertion is that audiences are not actually hungry for originality. When something truly original – like the TV show “Profit” – pops up, it almost immediately is rejected by the majority of viewers. What people want – what we lack most – is authenticity. For so long now, every message we hear and every image we see has been so carefully crafted to elicit the desired response that our brains have begun to rebel. We miss the quality that the Japanese call Wabi-Sabi – the beauty of imperfection. Designers recognize this, which is why you see so many “grunge” elements in contemporary design. But it’s not REAL grunge, it’s synthetic, digital grunge, and it’s just as plastic and artificial as the synthetic, digital beauty.

Conversely, there are a few art blogs that feature brilliant work by different artists based on common themes. That type of energy is what we need more of, in every creative discipline.

I say, stop worrying about being original. Focus on creating work that is authentic. It doesn’t have to be novel, it just has to be real.


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