On Originality in Art

(Catalogue essay from In Company, Gaffa Gallery 2014, by Matilda Michell)

Boy with guitar
Matilda Michell, Boy with Guitar, 36 x 26 cm, oil on canvas, 2014
Nicole Kelly, Anthony, 34 x 25 cm, oil on canvas, 2014

These days we are used to pitying artists of the past for the rigid aesthetic rules they were obliged to adhere to and the dictation of their subject according to the preferences of their patrons. In short, for their lack of freedom. In times past, an artist’s subject was frequently restricted to a specific pre-existing narrative, and one which had been repeatedly portrayed previously. Today, every artist may choose any subject she pleases, execute it in any style she pleases, in any medium and with the advantage of high quality reproductions of past masterpieces readily available to her. So how is it that we, in an age of such advantages, should be producing such a vast quantity of poor, unimaginative and unskilled art? The answer, I think, lies partly in our very notion of what originality means.

Today what is valued in art is not originality but novelty, a quality altogether more common, more easily obtained and more fleeting, but one that has a number of knock on effects both for the artist and the artwork.

The quest for newness in art discourages the artist from looking at past artworks with any level of serious concentration. The investment of time necessary to properly understand an artwork is not conducive to the rapid production of novelty in art because an artist can only hope to study a limited number of works in this fashion. In order to be assured she is indeed new, the artist must instead restlessly survey the vast panorama of works and styles available. It is considered more important to have a passing acquaintance with everything on offer than a serious understanding of a select few. A slower and more thorough reflection on past works is, however, essential to the development of an original perspective because, with time, an artist may hope to be painting not just what is there in front of her but the ghosts, shadows and memories of an individual selection of past paintings. This allows her to connect to tradition in a fashion which will be entirely her own since no-one else is likely to have selected precisely the same artists and works to study, or for the same reasons. Furthermore, her work will possess a more sincere and long lasting originality since she will be motivated from a genuine love of the works she studies, rather than simply a desire to be original.

Works created out of a desire to be simply new rather than sincere will usually be based on a verbal idea rather than an aesthetic one. As the artist generally has no particular aim other than novelty, the execution of the work is barely relevant and there is nothing for her to strive for in terms of mood and emotion of expression. This concept based work must also be more jealously defended as there is nothing at all to stop someone else from doing precisely the same thing – in which case the work ceases to be new and becomes valueless. The truly original work is generally founded on a lifetime of sincere dedication and is not so easily emulated nor as easily devalued. The quest for novelty therefore begets a particularly solitary approach, in which each artist jealously guards her own particular niche.

This persistent preference for novelty has led many artists to conclude that originality lies in the idea itself rather than the means of expressing it. This is backed up by the continual requests for written justification in the form of artist statements, grant applications etc. In written form, an artist who exploits a particular niche appears more original than someone who feels themselves to be merely trying to get to grips with the processes and possibilities of painting. This leads many artists very early in their careers to commit themselves to extremely specific subject matter in an attempt to carve out for themselves a unique niche in a very competitive market and to combat the fear we all suffer that perhaps, after all, we are redundant.

The modern pursuit of novelty along with its relentless shock tactics and ‘boundary pushing’ are an understandable reaction to the feeling that art may be more than a little irrelevant in today’s world. If one can create a reaction, no matter of what sort, no matter how fleeting, it is likely to feel like a triumph in a world where we are constantly competing with aggressively attention seeking forms of entertainment. As a consequence, many artists try either to out compete them by being equally as disgusting, offensive, shocking and demoralising as their competition or retreat to the safety of a subject so particular as to be assured of being both completely unique and completely dull. This type of honing in on minutiae ought to be understood as a genuine attempt to be true to a subject and to do it justice, but the limited scope of the subject matter means that the painting cannot speak to humanity broadly as any art must if it is to be meaningful.

This brings me to the main point of my essay; the preference for novelty has discouraged many artists from working in company and so has deprived them of the beneficial influence of their contemporaries. I am not suggesting that artists today don’t speak to each other or exchange ideas and argue theoretical points. They do that now as they have always done. What I don’t think is nearly as common is for artists to set up side by side and paint precisely the same subject without fear of compromising their own voice. I would argue that just the opposite is the case – working in company generates ideas that a merely abstract discussion can never touch on. It allows artists to communicate with each other more directly in their own language rather than via an inadequate verbal approximation. Finally, it refocuses art on the aspects of its practice not expressible through any other medium, which therefore hold the key to the continued relevance of painting in today’s world.

Some of the most significant moments for me at art school were when a teacher (often having explained themselves for twenty minutes verbally to little success) would pick up the brush make a motion and say ‘like that’. I understood them more completely and immediately than from years of verbal explanations.

In the past, artists who have worked together have also adopted similar aesthetic approaches, as with Monet and Renoir, Cezanne and Pissarro, Picasso and Gris. In today’s climate, where there are so many styles and approaches to painting being practiced simultaneously, what might come from working in the company of other artists from an entirely different stylistic background?

Originality is founded on a sincere desire to express something important, a proper and respectful acquaintance with the efforts of the generations that have done so before and a true and considered dissatisfaction with the existing means to express that idea. It cannot ever be an end in itself and, for that reason, perhaps we’re all better off forgetting about it and getting on with our painting. If possible with the pleasure of a little company.