What is originality, anyway?

“Originality is the fine art of remembering what your hear but forgetting where you heard it.” – Lawrence J. Peters

One of the many discussions held in art classes, around coffee tables and in seminars is originality. Can we ever be original? Should we aim for uniqueness? How high of a priority should we place on new ideas? Is reiteration still artistic?

These are difficult questions to answer and you can find many opinions for each. I have certainly struggled to find a balance between originality and truth in my art.

My experience
There have been times when I have come up with what I believe to be a good plot idea or character type just to discover it’s already been done. I had a professor challenge me on a piece I wrote. He noted that my sentences were good and I was building a world and plot well, but the concept that supported them had been done many times. Was spending my time on an iterated concept worth it? He suggested that I come up with something unique or to take the trope and do something new with it.

I walked away from that meeting at once aware and frustrated. Of course my idea wasn’t new! Of course the topic has been covered many times by many minds more intelligent than mine! However, how am I supposed to develop new ideas? What do I have to say about the world? And maybe that was the issue. I wasn’t looking at today’s world for inspiration. Perhaps if I am to create something valuable and “new” I need to respond to my current environmental reality.

What is original?
The word itself refers to origin or the birth of a thing. Modern language has attributed an antithetical definition. What once meant a history now means new or first birth. So when we say a work is original, we’ve lost the meaning of the thing. However, original work – in the old sense – is still unique. Looking to the origin of a concept and drawing upon it can create ideas that have yet to be explored. I think an example of an original idea can be “what defines man?” New thoughts have entered the conversation. We’ve used robots to question it in the technological age, but the ancients asked the same thing.

The focus of art
In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis said that “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.”

By that standard, honesty in art is more valuable than creating something new. I think that can be comparable to what I was mentioning earlier. Observing and responding to the world is telling the truth as you see it. By accomplishing honesty, you will find originality.

Theater has often been called a mirror of society, meaning it shows the audience what we as humans are really like. It forces us to confront our shortcomings. I believe all art can do that and mirroring our culture in our work will produce original ideas.  

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One thought on “What is originality, anyway?

  1. Often times when we see media or technology that claims to be original, I think that quote at the beginning of your article rings especially true. Even with modern innovations, everything is still based off of something that existed prior, and it seems that the main body of people claiming them as original have forgotten (or often times not realized) there are numerous connections to older ideas.

    Once you’ve accepted that, I think it becomes much easier to appreciate the value of iteration. With just a single idea, there are so many permutations that could derive from that origin, all of which potentially inspiring more and more. It’s a constant build of iterating and refining ideas, constantly spreading out and changing the picture in ways that we hope that others will value.

    So, what does that mean for originality? Perhaps there are original ideas that can still be found, but would we recognize them as original? Or have we been so conditioned by our processes that we only find originality in new and interesting iterations of existing ideas? It’s entirely possible that a truly new concept would be dismissed as something that doesn’t make sense or is simply not possible.

    Either way, I appreciate your view on honesty in originality. I think not only is that a good way to engage people better, but it’s also a more realistic way of looking at the whole thing. If you try to force creative processes like that, you end with a flawed piece of work.

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